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A tale of two Infernos: what Werner Herzog gets that Dan Brown misses

Inferno and Into the Inferno both think religion helps unlock mysteries, but they couldn't be more different.

Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones in Inferno and Werner Herzog in Into the Inferno
Inferno and Into the Inferno.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It’s not your imagination, and you’re not seeing double: There really are two movies out this weekend with the word "inferno" in the title.

One of them, Inferno, is the third film in the Da Vinci Code series, based on the novel by Dan Brown, directed by Ron Howard, and starring Tom Hanks. The other, Into the Inferno, is a documentary that’s (sort of) about volcanoes, directed by Werner Herzog.

It’s hard to imagine two more different films. Inferno is twisty and ludicrous, a code-cracking romp through absurdity against the background of still-medieval Florence; Into the Inferno is a loose, sometimes funny, sometimes unsettling meditation on the ways raw natural power shapes human societies, imaginations, and beliefs. In other words, it’s a Werner Herzog movie.

What the two films have in common is also what separates them: Both sense that religion is a way of interpreting the world, but they approach their responsibility to that topic from opposite poles.

Inferno never really wanted to make sense



Inferno is actually based on Dan Brown’s fourth novel about Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon — Hollywood skipped the third novel, The Lost Symbol, for reasons that don’t really seem to matter — and I’ll risk being repetitive to state that it’s not a very good movie. The point of this movie and its predecessors, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, has never been to make great art. They get poor reviews and make a lot of money, and most people go home happy enough — including, presumably, Howard, Hanks, and whoever else is on the payroll.

As with its predecessors, Inferno features Hanks gamely playing Langdon and takes place over the course of a single day, as Langdon uses his knowledge about symbols and history to crack a historical scavenger hunt and save the world from whatever shadowy force is threatening it this time. (You don’t need to see either The Da Vinci Code or Angels & Demons to follow along with this one.)

This time around, that threat is Dr. Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), who in the film’s opening moments is seen giving a TED-like speech about the urgent need to reduce the number of humans on the planet by half, so as to keep us from sending ourselves into extinction. He, as you might guess, plans to do this winnowing himself — saving the human race by extinguishing half of it with a virus.

Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones in Inferno
Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones in Inferno.

There are all kinds of problems with this plan that Inferno never really addresses. For instance, about 95 percent of humanity will be infected, but only half will die. Which half and why? Is this selective, and if so, who gets selected, and why are people not more concerned about eugenics? Why will the surviving half not also die, if civilization is wiped out and they have to fight one another for survival? Also, if a population of about 8 billion is reduced to 4 billion, what will keep them from rapidly multiplying back up to 8 billion? Isn’t this at best a short-term fix?

But the best policy with these movies is to not ask too many questions — a bit ironically, since the movie is peppered with Zobrist whispering "seek and find," which I can only assume is meant to echo Jesus’s words in two Gospels.

Any enjoyment derived from Inferno comes from trying to keep up with the actual plot, which contains some truly groan-worthy twists but nonetheless probably shouldn’t be spoiled. I’ll just leave it at this: Langdon wakes up in a hospital in Florence with short-term amnesia, tended to by Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), who helps him escape a police officer who’s apparently after him. They return to her apartment, where they become convinced the US government is after him for some reason he can’t really remember because, again, amnesia. (Amnesia, by the way, is the lazy writer’s way to construct a mystery out of nothing very mysterious.)

Langdon circuitously realizes he has a tiny device in his possession that, when sprung, projects on Dr. Brooks’s apartment wall an altered image of Botticelli’s "Map of Hell," based on Dante’s Inferno, which has inspired most of our conceptions of hell since. (The Bible itself is largely mum on the specific details of hell, save for some references to an unquenchable lake of fire.) In the Inferno, Dante depicts hell as comprising nine circles, corresponding roughly to the deadly sins, and he travels through those circles led by the poet Virgil (who has been sent by Beatrice, the symbol of divine love, who emerges in the later books of Dante’s Divine Comedy).

Botticelli’s Map of Hell, after Dante’s Inferno
Botticelli’s "Map of Hell," after Dante’s Inferno.

Botticelli mapped out Dante’s circles, but Langdon and Brooks notice there’s lettering on the painting, and some of the pieces have been rearranged. That sends them off on a scavenger hunt through Florence and, eventually, Istanbul.

A classic tale of double-crossing, falling through ceilings, and messages hidden on the back of medieval artifacts, Inferno is an extremely silly staging of a battle between well-intentioned people, all of whom want to stave off the apocalypse but disagree about the best way to do that. The movie doesn’t even bother to justify its own position on whether or not this is a good idea.

And why should it? This is a puzzle box, not reality, and it’s going to sell a lot of movie tickets. I left the theater feeling like the movie I’d just seen was frivolous and poorly plotted but sort of charming in its own way, and it moved along so fast I barely had time to register another plot hole before it soldiered on to the next picturesque location.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was weird and wrong about it.

Into the Inferno is ostensibly about volcanoes but actually about belief systems

As it happened, earlier that day I’d watched Into the Inferno (in theaters and on Netflix), which organizes itself around some of the world's major active volcanoes, from Indonesia to Iceland. Werner Herzog travels alongside Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, whom he met while shooting his 2007 Antarctica doc, Encounters at the End of the World.



After I finished the movie, my husband asked me what I’d learned about volcanoes, and I realized that the answer was "very little." But that’s not a complaint. Through Herzog's eyes, volcanoes are majestic shapers of life. He films active lava flows as if they are magnificent art installations, their roiling magma and rippling cooling folds acting as tools of sculpture in the hands of the world's most badass artist.

Into the Inferno is less interested in science than it is in humanism, in prodding the civilizations that live in the shadow of these volcanoes. Every civilization has tales of its own creation and of future apocalypse — what if both were contained in a mountain, and that mountain loomed over your life? Imagine living beside a mountain that both gave rise to your world and could wipe it out at any moment. Would you fear it? Worship it? Sing about it? All of the above?

Volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer in Into the Inferno
Volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer in Into the Inferno.
Peter Zeitlinger/Netflix

Herzog has never really been good about sticking to his ostensible subject. No matter what he's looking at — and talking about, in the accent and intonation that by now has risen to the level of self-parody — Herzog is just as interested in how humans live in the midst of the world’s mysteries as he is in those mysteries themselves. Cave paintings, grizzly bears, death row inmates, the internet, Antarctica: They're interesting to Herzog insofar as they touch imaginations and shape civilizations, and that's why he points his camera at them. Every Herzog movie is, ultimately, about Herzog, and also about us.

There's less Herzog voiceover in this film than usual, traded for more onscreen Oppenheimer, who talks with subjects about their lives in the volcanoes' shadows. Some are village leaders who are comfortable chatting about their relatives' ability to talk to the volcano but mystified by the scientists' interest in it.

The most gripping part of the film is a short but surreal section in which Oppenheimer and the crew, having been invited to collaborate with volcanologists in North Korea, gain rare access to the cloistered country, and Herzog comes along for the ride.

In the first shot, Herzog's camera sits alongside Paektu Mountain, a huge volcano that’s considered the mythical birthplace of the Korean people. A group of young men in uniform approach, marching in formation. We, along with Herzog, assume they are soldiers, but it turns out they are university students, come to pay homage to the volcano. They sing, and as they do, Herzog pans across the line of them and solemnly entreats us to consider the same spectacle ever happening with university students in California.

"Everything we saw was an act of presentation, and we went for it," says Herzog. "There is no way to see this enigmatic country other than how it wants to present itself."

Soon we discover that Kim Il-Sung, who fought the Japanese and became the first president of the country (eventually declared "president for eternity," Herzog informs us), established his secret military base at the volcano, effectively co-opting the country's religious mythology about its own origin to establish his place in its pantheon of gods. Several guides take us around the mountain to different sculptures and, eventually, to the secret base itself, which Herzog says is a place that carries roughly as much weight in the North Korean imagination as Jesus’s birthplace.

Inferno never bothers to justify its conclusions

Putting Inferno and Into the Inferno side by side yields parallels. Some are to be expected: Both, for instance, rely on a lot of fire imagery, which can’t help but call to mind hell. Both talk a lot about the mass extinguishment of human life, along with the rebirth of the world. In that way, both are apocalyptic: In Inferno, Zobrist suggests we ought to bring on the apocalypse ourselves to save mankind, while in Into the Inferno, most people are aware of just how helpless they are in the face of a mighty volcano.

But Inferno left me miffed because it is, at heart, a deeply inhuman story. I don’t have a particular dog in the medieval Catholic fight, though I know Brown has been a figure of controversy for his perceived anti-Christian stories, particularly in The Da Vinci Code. He’s claimed they are meant to entertain and promote spiritual discussion and debate. And that’s his prerogative.

Tom Hanks and Sidse Babett Knudsen in Inferno
Tom Hanks and Sidse Babett Knudsen in Inferno.

And yet, whatever is true of his previous books and the movies based on them, Inferno is in some other category, precisely because there is nothing very spiritual about them. Set aside the mass-extinction plot for a moment (which could promote conversation of a spiritual sort, however obliquely). In Inferno, the stories and symbols belonging to a faith tradition important to many people serve merely as a sort of decoder ring for a religiously tinted National Treasure. The actual meaning and content of those beliefs is excised in favor of a maudlin romantic plot and a mystery; anything that appears mysterious or supernatural is quickly explained away.

It seems very strange that a story so surrounded by beauty, mystery, and gestures toward the divine could be so very cold and devoid of care for its characters. Inferno doesn’t explicitly attack the Catholic Church in any manner. But it treads all over holy and formerly holy sites with nary a moment for wonder or contemplation.

Sure, the fate of the world is at stake. But if you’re going to bring up hell and Dante’s Beatrice, whisper "seek and find" over and over, and contemplate the extinction of humanity — if you’re going to ponder the awesome fact that modern man holds in his hands the possibility to control his own destiny instead of leaving that fate with the gods, would it be too much to bring up metaphysics once or twice to explain why humans ought to survive? Or nah?

[Spoiler, I guess] That’s why it’s extra strange that Inferno never bothers to justify its ultimate position, that it would be better for humans to continue on this apparently inexorable track toward overpopulation and hellish extinction rather than go along with Zobrist’s selective-reduction plan. Near the end it seems briefly as if Langdon is having an attack of conscience for realizing he killed to save mankind — on a smaller scale, to be sure — but the moment passes, and with it, the opportunity to reflect on something bigger than a puzzle.

But the fate of humanity is at stake here, for Pete’s sake. And without being told that Zobrist was wrong, and without a way to justify Langdon’s decision (religious, philosophical, or otherwise), Inferno just leaves us feeling as if he might have done the wrong thing.

Into the Inferno takes belief seriously, no matter how strange

Herzog’s approach could not be more different. In fact, you could say that Into the Inferno is an inquiry into the nature of religion itself, and how people around the world develop the beliefs that give their lives meaning. The volcanoes are connected and give rise to the fundamental beliefs of the cultures around them, and while we could certainly just chuckle at some of those beliefs from our vantage points, Herzog won’t let us. "There is no single [volcano] that is not connected to a belief system," Herzog tells us — whether that’s magical, political, or religious.

Herzog’s approach takes belief seriously, no matter how improbable or illogical it sounds to the outsider. Brown’s skims the symbols off religion for entertainment in the form of puzzles that can be unlocked in the space of a day (or a two-hour movie).

A volcano erupts.

That in a nutshell captures the dichotomy of how we who fancy ourselves sophisticated and enlightened tend to handle religion. Religion can act just as a curious repository of aesthetics and symbols we can draw upon for our own purposes — think of how politicians and their surrogates so easily swipe biblical phrases to tug at our consciences, for instance. But people’s dearly held beliefs, no matter how silly we might think they are from the outside, aren’t really ours to use for our own entertainment purposes without even a nod to what they meant, and mean, to adherents. (Especially when your whole story is about mass death and destruction.)

That’s why Herzog’s approach is both respectful and deeply contemporary: It recognizes that belief takes a lot of shapes, not all of which are explicitly about the gods — the North Korea segment shows that — and that when we’re confronted with belief systems that don’t quite make sense to us, we might do well to just sit and listen.

Into the Inferno is a strong argument for feeling a sense of wonder in the face of things you don’t understand. Inferno, on the other hand, has no sense of wonder at all, no respect for the weight of its conclusions. Cheap tricks and symbols are all it has.