From Werner Herzog to Pompeii: the difficulties of capturing volcanoes in film

It is strange that the full terror of the volcano has rarely been harnessed for narrative purposes – most films about eruptions end up as camp disaster flicks.

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For such fearsome natural phenomena, volcanoes enjoy a rather benign reputation in the popular imagination. Rarely do we see these gateways to the Earth’s bubbling tumultuous maw in their terrible fullness, unlike their tectonic cousins, tsunamis and earthquakes, or even, in recent years, global warning. It’s curious but probably not all that unusual: volcanoes, deadly as they can be, are generally less  murderous and far more predictable than other natural disasters. For people in most countries (Japan and Indonesia, with hundreds of active volcanoes each, being the two main exceptions) they are exotic marginalia, notionally lethal but at a safe distance. When the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, erupted in spring 2010 and grounded planes all over Europe, comments in the media and among the general public focused on its near-unpronounceable name – the bane of news anchors everywhere south of the Faroe Islands – and incredulity that modern aviation could seriously be threatened by such a trifle as volcanic ash. Not once did anyone consider the fact that we might be all in serious danger from it. 

A previous eruption of an Icelandic volcano, Laki, in 1783 destroyed harvests across the world, starving an estimated six million people, including one million each in Japan and France. This converged with a number of other historical factors to lead to the French Revolution six years later. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is generally cited as a spiritual and intellectual catalyst for the Enlightenment but the key role of a deadly volcanic eruption in one of the foundational events of modern history has less popular currency. It is as if mankind was reluctant to alienate the volcanic gods by pointing the finger at them. 

Geologists and volcanologists, of course, take volcanoes very seriously and pay much closer attention to them than the general public does. Volcanic eruptions have caused famine on numerous other occasions throughout history, plunging much of the Northern Hemisphere into a volcanic winter in 1816, and helping create the sunsets so brilliantly captured by J M W Turner. The Minoan civilisation in Greece and the Xia dynasty in China are believed to have succumbed to the same eruption of Mount Santorini about 1600 BC. Scientists link a “genetic bottleneck” in human history to a supervolcano eruption about 77,000 years ago, which might have left as few as 3,000 people living on the planet. One volcanologist, Bill McGuire, formerly of University College London, says another super-eruption has the potential to do the same again.

Lava flow, Hawaii, June 2014

Perhaps one of the reasons we rarely think of the terror of volcanoes is because they exist primarily on the symbolic level for us. When we use the words “volcanic” or “erupt” it is usually in a metaphorical sense and the volcano is often coterminous with metaphor, such as in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, where Popacatepetl functions mostly as a signifier for Geoffrey Firmin’s hellish alcoholism. The word “volcano”, common to most Western languages, is itself derived from a symbolic avatar – the Roman god of fire (Chinese, Japanese and Bahasa Indonesian, by contrast, make do with more literal formulations, meaning either “fire mountain” or “flaming mountain”). Even people who live in the shadows of volcanoes have this tendency to metaphorise them. The popular Neapolitan Christmas dish Baccalà alla vesuviana, takes its name from the explosive mint, chilli and caper flavours of the sauce that covers the salt-cod. Never mind that the three million or so people living in the immediate vicinity of Vesuvius constitute the urban conglomeration most at risk from a volcanic eruption. 

A staple of any Tiki bar is the cute volcano-shaped punch bowl that patrons imbibe from using foot-length straws. Volcanoes have long been held sacred by those living at their mercy and Hawaiians were probably the greatest volcano-worshippers of them all, regarding the volcano goddess Pele in esteem even after pagan rituals were outlawed in 1819. Many native Hawaiians believed a lock of King Kamehameha’s hair thrown into the lava coming from Hualalai prevented an eruption in 1801, as did an illicit offering to Pele by his granddaughter eight decades later. Tenggerese Hindus and Buddhists are also known to throw offerings into the caldera of the highly active Mount Bromo in Java. The Feast of San Gennaro, observed in Little Italy and Naples, has its roots in the belief that the martyred patron saint of Naples offered protection against Vesuvius and other local volcanoes. The fact that volcanic deposits produce such beautiful topography (and have fortifying properties) also gives them fetishistic value – Mount Fuji is a virtual national symbol of Japan, while traditionalist Icelanders believe elves make their home in lava beds. It was perfectly fitting that the mysterious aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind homed in on the ghostly laccolith of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. 

Devil’s Tower in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (Steven Spielberg, 1977)

“La Soufrière” (Werner Herzog, 1977)

It is still strange that the full terror of the volcano has rarely been harnessed for narrative purposes. Most films about eruptions are camp disaster flicks, such as the rival 1999 releases, Dante’s Peak and Volcano. This year’s Pompeii was not much better, paling in power beside Pliny the Younger’s eyewitness report from 79 AD. Even writers as formidable as Susan Sontag and D H Lawrence have not been able to resist the descent into camp that writing about volcanic eruptions almost always seems to entail. One of the rare examples of a volcano being portrayed in all its terrible splendour is Werner Herzog’s 1977 documentary La Soufrière, about a volcano on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, whose imminent eruption prompted the evacuation of the town of Basse-Terre. Operating on the Robert Capa dictum of ‘if your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough’ Herzog and his cameramen Ed Lachman and Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein go up the mountain to film the impending doom. The town itself is deserted, with traffic lights still working, televisions flickering in the darkness of abandoned homes and pets dying of starvation in the streets. On the slopes of La Grande Soufrière, they find an elderly man who has refused to evacuate his home, reasoning that he has nowhere to go and is ready to meet his end should it come. This is a foretelling of Harry R. Truman, an octogenarian who briefly became famous for refusing to leave in the run-up to the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State in May 1980 that killed him and 56 others. 

Eruption of Mount St Helens, 1980

La Soufrière never exploded and the local inhabitants returned to their homes after a tense couple of weeks but a previous eruption on the neighbouring island of Martinique haunts Herzog’s film. Mount Pelée exploded on 8 May, 1902, wiping out practically the entire 29,000 inhabitants of Saint-Pierre, leaving only two survivors (a subsequent eruption weeks later killed 2,000 people working on  the clean-up operation). It was death on the scale of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, as in Pompeii two millennia earlier, it was pyroclastic waves that killed the population instantly. It is these, rather than the more photogenic (and much slower) lava flows that are the real danger from volcanic eruptions, travelling at up to 400 miles per hour and capable of burning humans to a crisp at temperatures of over 1000˚ centigrade. A sudden pyroclastic flow on Japan’s Mount Ontake in September took hitchhikers by surprise, killing 57 (another 200 survived by taking shelter in lodges). It is estimated pyroclastic waves could kill up to 87,000 people instantly in the event of a super-eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera in Wyoming. 

Herzog’s portrayal of the Mount Pelée disaster is done using only photographs of its aftermath, which are far more haunting than anything a fiction film about volcanoes has ever accomplished. The reason for this is probably because the promptness of such destruction doesn’t lend itself easily to narrative portrayal, not to mention that such a portrayal, even in fiction, would be uncomfortably voyeuristic. Maybe the true terror of volcanic eruptions is too intangible and invisible to capture on screen, leaving the image of a movie hero cartoonishly trying to outrun lava flows the best we can hope for. Everything else we should probably leave to the imagination.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.