Lessons of Darkness (1992)
Directed by: Werner Herzog.
It’s interesting to go back and watch a Werner Herzog documentary from before the world turn him into a meme – and he so fully embraced it. Aside from his masterful Into the Abyss (and the On Death Row side project), I am always stuck wondering in all post-Grizzly Man Herzog docs just how seriously he is taking his strange narration, and how much he is simply embracing the image that many have of him. This isn’t a wholly bad thing – it’s made some of his work, like Encounters at the End of the World both insightful and hilarious, but at other times it’s a distraction. Watching his 54 minute documentary Lessons of Darkness from 1992 – from before Herzog was a celebrity – is eye-opening in many ways. First, it is one of Herzog’s best, most visually striking documentaries – a brilliant look at the Kuwaiti oil fields in flames – presented with little voiceover narration or context. But it’s also interesting to look at the filmmaker Herzog was at the time – his voice is over much of the first half, and then almost none in the second – as if even Herzog has been struck dumb by the devastation he sees. It’s a choice that I doubt he would make today.
Herzog doesn’t really provide context for his documentary – instead, approaching it in terms of his voiceover as if he were an alien visitor, unsure of what he is seeing playing out on this strange planet. Split into 13 chapters, Herzog starts with shots of Kuwait’s capital before the war – a beautiful, old city. We then flash to the familiar CNN footage – night vision green – of bombs going off all throughout the city. From there, spends much of the rest of the time surveying the damage. Most of the shot in the movie are taken from helicopter flying above the massive wreckage – and Herzog’s typical voiceover only interrupts in order to provide necessary information – like the massive lakes and rivers we are seeing, although they appear to be water, are actually oil. He speaks to only two people – a Kuwaiti woman who says she witnessed her two adult sons tortured to death in front on her, and since then she hasn’t been able to speak (she does speak in the film, but in a barely audible whisper – that Herzog doesn’t subtitle) – and another woman, shown with her young son, who talks about soldiers bursting into her home, and throwing her son to the ground and stepping on his head – and how he has not spoken since either. These are powerful anti-war statements – made perhaps more powerful by the fact Herzog provides zero context for them – the woman talk of “soldiers” – but nothing else (like, where those soldiers were from). Herzog will follow the lead of the woman and the young boy for the second half of the film – not speaking for long stretches of time – as if he too can longer speak having witnessed the horror of war that he has seen.
The last third of the film is the most visually striking, as Herzog and his crew go to the oilfields themselves as they are burning – massive columns of fire shooting up from the desert – and the various firefighters and oil workers on hand to try and put out the flames, and cap the wells. Then, oddly, we see them setting more fires – and Herzog’s voiceover returns – confused about what we are seeing, and why? Didn’t they just put out the fires? Why are they setting more (the film never answers).
Lessons of Darkness ranks as one of Herzog’s finest documentarians for several reasons. One is, like much of his work, he is more than willing to go where many others would refuse to. This isn’t safe areas in which is he filming, but Herzog is one of those madmen who will not be stopped, and somehow always ends up unscathed. Second, because I do think it represents Herzog’s worldview – as seen in other films – in a more simple, straight-forward way. Had Herzog made an overtly political film – critical of this specific war, the film would instantly be dated. But he didn’t do that – and as a result, the film becomes some deeper, more universal – a treatise on wars and the illogical nature of them in general – much like he would do years later when examining the death penalty – where it wasn’t so much this one case, but the idea of the state putting someone to death – or more accurately, the state asking people to put others to death.
Herzog is such a prolific director, it’s impossible to keep up with everything he’s done – I’ve seen 20 of his films – which according to IMDB, only leaves 49 (and growing) to go. As anyone who makes that many films is, Herzog is inconsistent – but when he’s at his best, he can be terrific. He’s at his best with Lessons of Darkness.