Strange, Small & Forgotten Films: “La Soufrière” (1976)

Disasters seem to have a knack for finding us, but some hearty, half-mad souls can’t help but gravitate to the maw of a volcano, believing there are answers to ineffable questions to be found in nature’s profane mouth. Director Werner Herzog has long been one of these hellbent philosophers and his 1976 documentary, “La Soufrière,” is a 30-minute meditation about his sojourn to Guadeloupe just as the eponymous volcano prepared to explode with the impact of five or six atomic bombs.

Approximately 75,000 inhabitants were evacuated from the Caribbean tempest, just before Herzog and his two camera operators arrived to seek out the few stragglers who refused to leave and to take what they believed would be the final images of the town before it was razed and charred. If the eruption was as massive as expected, well, there really was no exit strategy for the filmmakers.

The village’s utter desolation has a chilling beauty, as Herzog and his team wind through unmanned blockades and confused cattle to get within shouting distance of the angry vortex. They meet and interview their doppelgangers: a trio of native men who calmly, almost sluggishly, await their death by fire and rock.

“It was a comfort for us not having the law hanging around,” intones Herzog in his powerful voiceover narration, as the volcano ominously bubbles and steams. But the law of nature is ever-present, and, as always, demands control of the final cut.•