On Werner Herzog’s La Soufrière
By Greta Balog

“I was editing Stroszek when I heard about the impending volcanic eruption, and discovered that the island of Guadeloupe - population eighty thousand - had been evacuated, though one person refused to leave. I immediately knew I wanted to talk to him and find out what kind of relationship this man had with death.”
- Werner Herzog

Herzog’s voice over begins, in its usual way; informative, somewhat detached and soothing. He explains that it’s 1976 and there’s a volcano about to blow on the Island of Guadeloupe.

Empty streets.

Even though the island’s residents were evacuated, there was a massive disagreement between two volcano scientists who argued about whether or not the evacuation should have happened at all.

Almost everybody evacuates.

I watched this short film again during the middle of the stage 5 lockdown in Victoria. I noticed similarities between the shots in the film, it’s mood and the landscape around me at the time. Maybe it’s because of the comfort of relating what we are going through to something that has been documented. Even if it is a volcano on the brink of exploding and taking a whole island with it.

Maybe the two situations aren’t alike at all. Perhaps the only thing they have in common could be the lack of people in places that were once used to high levels of foot traffic.

In Melbourne right now, there is an alarming presence of snakes, which are emerging all over the city in huge numbers. In the film we are told that thousands of snakes evacuate the mountain housing the volcano and flee into the ocean to their death. We see wild animals taking over the streets.

We see a mountain, smoke spills from its giant cracks.

We see a street, which looks like it would have once been full of life and human activity. The volcano looms in the distance, seeping smoke.

I wonder why this film only goes for 29 minutes. Is it because the film production crew ran out of things to observe in this deserted city? Is it because everything starts looking and feeling the same?

“But in their haste, they had forgotten to switch off the traffic lights”, Herzog narrates over the top of a long still shot. There’s a traffic light with it’s red globe blinking on and off, slowly and rhythmically.

We see the ground; a single slip-on shoe. Maybe someone lost it during the evacuation. I start to think about the speed in which people may have fled.

A mother pig guards her six tiny piglets, all standing in the middle of a bendy road. She looks at the camera. The film crew are intruders. This is her road.

Shops are empty. There’s dust obscuring the windows. Two donkeys brush past each other as they walk lazily. A live dog. And then a dead one.

How many different ways can a filmmaker show silence? The absence of human activity in a place that is built by humans. A functioning society that is suddenly forced to bail.

While there may be no volcano, Melbourne is under strict rules that have left the once populated city—deserted. If I stop and hold my breath, there is a distinct silence that envelops the city.

On the 17th of September, a lonely seal swam up the Yarra river, known as Birrarung to the Wurundjeri people. Reporters named the 200kg seal, Salvatore. Every few years, Salvatore ventures from the bay of Port Phillip into the city.

As a result of the global lock down, events like this have been happening all over the world; hundreds of thousands of pink flamingos taking over Mumbai, jackals appearing around Tel Aviv, and mountain goats descending from their perches to the streets in Wales.

From The Film Group October e-newsletter. To sign up to The Film Group newsletter, click here.


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