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Lessons of Darkness (Werner Herzog) 1992


    One of the few films that truly deserves to be labeled with the adjective “astonishing”, Werner Herzog’s 1992 documentary Lessons of Darkness uses the fallout of the Gulf War to present what is one of the finest examples of the singular director’s brand of stark-raving poetry. Though shot in contemporary times, the horrific destruction and consistently distanced humanity on display make the movie feel more like a work of sophisticated science-fiction than an examination of current events. The footage that Herzog has shot mainly focuses on the blazes in the oil fields of Kuwait. It uses sheer scale to put the conflict into perspective while demonstrating both the awesome power of nature, especially fire, and our primal attraction to its beauty. Glorious helicopter shots of oil coated expanses reveal a seemingly hopeless world of decay, where men scramble about trying to fix a cataclysm. The voiceover, comprised of Herzog’s musings, casts it all into sharp relief.


    Herzog isn’t exactly an inhumane director, but he’s one who doesn’t presuppose man’s superiority to nature, much less one man’s superiority over another man. He’s scarcely interested in the war itself. He relegates the actual conflict to just one of the film’s thirteen chapters. The footage of the war that he shows, which lasts less than a minute in duration, is a series of shots of bombs falling on cities, made all the more unreal by the videogame-like filter of the night vision camera. Grandiose music swells during this assault, but it’s the same bombast that is heard later, as the firefighters attempt to contain the war’s aftermath. At first it may seem that the transcendent images that Herzog has captured are glorifying the results of the conflict, or perhaps only working as sheer spectacle, but as the film moves on, and we encounter a few of the (usually dumbstruck) actual people involved in this conflict, the movie emerges as a powerful anti-war statement, in which an almost bemused distance from the subject becomes roughly analogous with dismissal of it. The ability of these images and juxtapositions to create awe is in no way reduced by the film’s basis in reality, perhaps because Herzog has always shaped the physical world to suit his storytelling needs, even in his fictional films. His tendency to find resonant metaphor in the world’s oddities is one of the prime elements of his genius, and by showing the scorched earth of Kuwaiti oil fields, he presents an almost literal, and unshakable, hell on earth.




Jeremy Heilman