Werner Herzog Reviews ‘Inferno’

We asked the director of 'Into the Inferno' to take a look at 'Inferno.'

EDITOR’S NOTE: In one of the stranger – and seemingly avoidable – titling and scheduling coincidences in recent movie memory, this Friday sees both the wide release of Ron Howard’s Dan Brown adaptation Inferno and the limited/Netflix release of Werner Herzog’s documentary Into the Inferno. In order to properly consider both of these similarly monikered yet wildly different films, we invited Mr. Herzog to screen the other Inferno*, and jot down a few of his thoughts.

I have not met Mr. Ron Howard, nor have I seen either of the earlier films that I am told preceded this inconveniently titled Inferno, so I must confess some mild confusion and disappointment. You see, it begins with many scenes of a rich young intellectual, played by Mr. Ben Foster, sharing his thoughts on the world, and I found myself settling in a bit, and nodding in agreement, for this was a very wise young man indeed. For example, one of the first things he tells us is, “Nothing changes behavior like pain. Maybe pain can change us.” These are, I would say, very wise words! He also tells us that “mankind is the cancer in its own body,” which also prompted some vigorous nodding from my seat; this character also tells us “humanity is the disease” and “Inferno is the cure.” Alas, as he says this, he takes a rather devastating fall from a very high clock tower, and alas, this bright young man is mostly absent from what follows. The film, I must confess, is not richer for it.

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Instead, we spend the next two hours in the company of Mr. Tom Hanks, an actor I admired greatly in his film with the police dog, who slobbers very much and solves crime. He is introduced in a state of confusion, recovering from a bullet that has grazed his skull and suffering from crippling visions. Mr. Howard invites us to share in Mr. Hanks’s confusion and disorientation by indulging in a great many visual fun house tricks, of the woozy camera and wide-angle lens variety. These are a touch overdone and greatly unnecessary – after all, are we not all, in our way, suffering from head wounds, staving off visions of handsless beggars, drowning in rivers of fire and blood?

At any rate, Mr. Howard sends Mr. Hanks and Ms. Felicity Jones on a whirlwind, globe-trotting mystery that seems a good deal less challenging than they believe. I will confess to taking some perverse pleasure in how, when secondary characters are mentioned or minor plot points are revealed, it is deemed necessary to show the audience several momentary flashbacks of faces or email text, as the filmmakers apparently do not trust our attentiveness and memory. I read Rabelais, Virgil, and fourteenth century Nordic poetry for pleasure; please do not talk down to me, Ron Howard.

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And the film progresses thus, with our intrepid heroes discovering a new clue every reel that spirits them off to a new and exotic locale, though most of the film seems to have been shot on a soundstage somewhere in Southern California, which is violence against cinema. These clues are often associated with those little “plots twists” that American audiences seem to enjoy so much, no matter how ridiculous or obvious. (I believe this is where I am to insert what the kind Flavor Wire editor calls a “spoiler warning.”) Before the film began, I took note of the promotional image of the actors, particularly that Ms. Jones’s hand seemed to be in shadow. “Perhaps this means her character has one hand in darkness,” I told my good friend and movie-going companion, a blind Bolivian dwarf named Flore. It gives me no pleasure to have correctly made this prediction, and even less that Flore was unwilling to put his disagreement into the form of a friendly wager.

The film’s climax is more American studio silliness, in which a great many actors are paid (and handsomely) to flop around in a water tank somewhere, while a clock ticks on a bomb that will certainly not explode, lest a mainstream film bother to acknowledge that we are but temporary inhabitants, living here on borrowed time, tempting our own doom with every hour spent in the company of such escapist nonsense. But at least Mr. Ben Foster returns in a flashback or two, to ask such pressing questions as “Why is suffering later preferable to suffering now?” I like his ideas, he has a real way with words. But I do believe suffering later, or not at all, in the company of this Inferno is preferable to suffering now; for now, I would like to remind you that my film is titled Into the Inferno, and among other things, it would not have you believe that Mr. Hanks and Mr. Foster wear the same size suit.

*This is fiction, obviously, but as Mr. Herzog himself has written, truth is “mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylisation.”