Throughout his illustrious career, Werner Herzog has done it all. He’s been to Antarctica, hauled a steamship over an Amazonian mountain, eaten a shoe (except for the sole), and apparently pointed a gun at his lead actor. Arguably his most fascinating (or mad) adventure, however, was purposely visiting an island with an active volcano on the verge of eruption to interview the inhabitants who chose to stay. While his non-documentary films (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Bad Lieutenant: Port Call to New Orleans, Aguirre the Wrath of God) all feature interesting topics and expose insights about the mechanics of the mind, dreams, and understanding, his documentaries feel much more connected to human emotion and our drives and ambitions.
La Soufrière is a 1977 film named after the eponymously named Saint Vincent volcano in the Caribbean. To some, it is a suicidal, maniacal death wish to brave a near erupting volcano and possibly face certain death in the name of cinema, and affirms Herzog’s constant desire to challenge and overcome the impossible. Certainly, watching him get closer and closer to the plumes of smoke billowing from the volcano and its rising noxious fumes causes the viewer to question his sanity and reasoning. Herzog, however, has a brilliant mandate. He is interested in the psychology of those who decide to stay behind and the driving factors that cause them to remain. He wants to share these images and thoughts with the world by capturing them on film. These images, obscure and rarely seen, evoke responses and reactions, and that is what Herzog wants. Interviewing those who remain, effectively giving them a voice and allowing their voice to be heard, enables us to understand their perspective. We can hear from them and understand what drives them and what makes them stay.
Furthermore, the film acts as a sort of memento mori, reminding us about the inevitability of death and fate. The characters who stay behind are defined through their dialogue and actions. Removed from society, they are moved by their own beliefs and reasoning. Saint Vincent is a ghost town after the volcano shows signs of erupting, deserted from the hub of everyday life in a sudden panic akin to Pripyat. The world without humans seems haunted, ready for the activities of human life, and yet completely devoid. In some ways I was reminded of Alan Weiss’ book The World without Us, seeing the impact of this lack of humanity with the sudden absence of humans. One of the remaining inhabitants believes that it is God’s will that he stays there to die, thus accepting his fate and not fearing death. He finds his own peace within and it is strangely inspirational. Rather than fear death and avoid it, he knows it is coming and comes to terms with it. Another realises that there is nothing that he can do about the volcano; either it will take him or it won’t, but he too is ready to die. The third remaining person has a duty to his animals; he cares about them and wants to stay behind to look after them. They are all connected through a readiness for death. Perhaps the loneliness and drastic action causes them to introspect and consider their ideas about death and mortality.
Ultimately, however, La Soufrière did not to erupt in 1977, but it eventually erupted two years later in 1979. Thankfully, the eruption happened with enough advanced warning for everyone to evacuate (hopefully the same can be said about the beautiful animals from the documentary). Herzog considers the lack of catastrophe and cataclysmic destruction taking place after his assured narrative as ‘embarrassing’ and ‘pathetic’. Herzog saw the opportunity as a quest, a personal challenge, and a chance to capture sights and visions that no one else could. As the ending of the documentary (with the classical music accompaniment) suggests, the smoking volcano is a testament to his own ambition, a sublime beauty that is truly unconquerable, and yet many find peace with. It would be interesting to have seen the volcano erupt after the portraits that Herzog reveals to us, but on the plus side, we are not faced with the tragedy of the inhabitants’ fates. Instead, we are informed by their experiences and admire their ability to persevere against extreme odds. La Soufrière is much more than a social study, however. It is a compelling documentary that explores some of our innermost concerns with life and death and our responses to them.