In 1976, a volcano on the island of Guadeloupe known locally as La Soufriere began to spew noxious gases and scientists became convinced that it was about to erupt with the power of a number of atomic bombs. When filmmaker Werner Herzog heard of this, he immediately gathered his small film crew and headed over there to document the events, not least because he had heard that there was one man who had refused to participate in the evacuation of the islanders. When they reached the town, they found it apparently deserted...
This was one of Herzog's most infamous documentaries, not for what happened in it but for what did not happen. All the way through he was expecting the volcano to explode and as the days dragged on, his waiting game ended up at stalemate; we can be thankful for the history of world cinema that the director was not killed in a volcanic eruption, but it leaves him in a self-confessed state of embarrassment that his cameras recorded nothing of a tumultuous event. He sounds disappointed in his narration, as if dying for his art would be the perfect ending for him.
To complement these feelings are those of the three men - not simply one - who the crew find around the now-empty town. They are happy to embrace death and see it as God's will for them to expire in this manner, believing it to be the natural order of things and you get the impression that Herzog, with his view of nature, would agree. However his universe is more of a godless one than the men he interviews, and in his view tragedies such as volcanoes wiping out whole communities are the result of an order which has no compassion, and will destroy and kill without any feeling, as opposed to the trio who have stayed behind who percieve more unknowable intelligence behind what is happening.
At one point Herzog describes the abandoned town as looking like something out of a science fiction movie, and this fits with his other documentaries where he presents his incredible footage as exactly that. Here, however, his story is kept to a brief half hour and there is no time for such indulgences, although one is reminded of any number of films or television series where the world has been left devoid of living people as the camera scans the streets, noting the odd animal there such as a donkey or starving (or starved) dog - and nothing else. There is an explanation about why the town was evacuated as in 1902 a neighbouring island was devastated by a similar volcano, killing thousands, but this time the catastrophe does not occur. For a film about nothing happening La Soufriere holds the attention: it's all about those remarkable images and those men who saw themselves as so low down the social ladder that they took their impending death as something to accept without question.
Eccentric German writer/director known equally for his brilliant visionary style and tortuous filming techniques. After several years struggling financially to launch himself as a filmmaker, Herzog began his career with the wartime drama Lebenszeichen and surreal comedy Even Dwarfs Started Small. But it was the stunning 1972 jungle adventure Aguirre, Wrath of God that brought him international acclaim and began his tempestuous working relationship with Klaus Kinski. The 1975 period fable Heart of Glass featured an almost entirely hypnotised cast, while other Herzog classics from this era include Stroszek, the gothic horror Nosferatu the Vampyre and the spectacular, notoriously expensive epic Fitzcarraldo.