Volcanic eruption films aren’t plentiful enough to make their own genre. Most of them fall into the disaster genre or the straight documentary video. Werner Herzog’s 1977 film La Soufrière, about the anticipated eruption in 1976 of an active volcano on the island of Guadeloupe, is different. Like his quasi-science-fictional films — Fata Morgana, Lessons of Darkness, Wild Blue Yonder — the film has a tone of tender and lyrical, apocalyptic beauty, a resignation in the face of what appears to be humanity’s passing. Like Aguirre, Heart of Glass, Grizzly Man, and several of his other films, it is also about the human encounter with an indifferent but powerful (capital-n) Nature.

The same elements that later appear in Lessons of Darkness (about the burning oil fields of Iraq), and in different permutations in several of his other films — moving vehicle and helicopter shots of a landscape emptied of humans, classical music including the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Parsifal, and the feeling of a waiting, as if something momentous is about to occur, or has already occurred, or both — is already present here, though without the cinematographic intensity of Lessons of Darkness. At times the film is like an archaeological dig through an abandoned city, or a devastated one (the town of Saint-Pierre in Martinique). At others it is about sheer contact — between the camera and the world — and about its embarrassed failure, the “inevitable catastrophe that did not take place.” This is the failure that, Herzog seems to be suggesting, haunts the cinema verité desire to be there when It, whatever It may be, happens.

Like most of Herzog’s films, La Soufrière blurs several sets of lines: between documentary and fiction (a line that Herzog prides himself on dissolving, though here he hews closer to the first pole than he usually does), between observation and performative enactment (meaning that his own persona is ever-present, which in this case includes taking his crew up to the caldera to poke their camera inside the steaming volcano, as if to dare nature to scald them with some smoke and ash), and between the hilarious and the deadly serious. The film highlights the barbed existential irony that when, in 1902, the inhabitants of neighboring Martinique were preparing to leave before an anticipated volcanic eruption, their governor persuaded them to stay; 30,000 died. Now, seventy-five years later, the inhabitants left (except for the few that Herzog’s crew finds and interviews, and of course, Herzog himself, attracted to the volcano like a moth to the flame). And the volcano… balked.

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