1992’s Lessons Of Darkness, by Werner Herzog, was probably the next logical step in the documentary style of film that was pioneered by Herzog and the –Quatsi trilogy of films by Godfrey Reggio, which, themselves were not true documentaries. This 54 minute film, that follows the post-First Gulf War cleanup of the damaged oil wells left behind by Saddam Hussein’s retreating and vandalous army, has few equals in terms of visual impact, and was nominated for a 1992 Academy Award for Best Documentary. Where Reggio’s films were mere visions for visions’ sake, Herzog’s near apocalyptic scenes of oil-choked death, fire, chaos, and destruction have been labeled everything from a documentary film to a science fiction film, simply because Herzog slips in some snippets of poetry that speaks of the realm as otherworldly. It is amazing how a little sleight of hand can totally confound the willfully obtuse.
What the film really is, though, is film for film’s sake. It is not a political screed nor polemic, because in a hundred years the circumstances that led to the imagery that Herzog filmed will be mere trivia. However, it will be nonetheless mesmeric to those eyes yet to be. Some have charged Herzog with manipulation of facts- such using hyperbolic and Apocalyptic title cards between scenes, or deliberately misinterpreting what a Kuwaiti mother is saying about her child’s refusal to talk, or false claims that the child wept black tears, due to the oil, just so the film will fit more in line with Herzog’s noted pessimism about the world, and the reviewers’ usually Left Wing attitudes on life. But, the ‘interview’ with the mother is merely a respite, an interlude, a bridge, in his visual score. This film cares little of the human element, only its ill aftermath. Thus, in another interstice, we see only the captured weapons of torture, not the scenes of torture, nor its victims nor perpetrators that came before. Others point to the even more blatant manipulation of political and military facts, such as a shot of Kuwait City, filmed after the Iraqis had been driven out, yet claimed as being before the war, or the fact that shots of the prosperous city are then contrasted with the ecological wastes of the erupting oil wells, as if they were one and the same place before and after the war.
To do so, however, is to miss the point, for this film is not a documentary, nor is it Riefenstahlian agitprop. It merely it uses the documentary style to bring home its filmic points in a Wagnerian (Götterdammerung) visual symphony that, again, points top Herzog as the supreme filmic scoring genius of the last fifty years. There are also wonderful scenes to the strains of Mahler’s Requiem and Strauss, as well. Yes, to us, fifteen years on, now in the midst of the shameful debacle we’ve created in Iraq, during the Second Gulf War, the scenes of a war where mere natural devastation is all that need be coped with seem almost quaint, even as the fiery scenes of Kuwait, which often seem from an alien world, far surpass any of the fake Hadean imagery in, say, the final scenes of the last banal Star Wars film. Yes, facts, such as not a single oil facility being attacked nor destroyed in our second foray into Iraq, prove that we learned well our lessons, documented here, as to what we truly value over there, and that the First Gulf War taught us how to take quickly take command and control of what we wanted. But that is not what this film is about, even as Herzog seems to delight in some of the perverse antics of the mercenary American firefighters who, less than a decade later, would get a taste of this hell on our own shores.
It is trite to say something is merely ‘an experience’, but that’s all that one can truly say of Lessons Of Darkness. In a sense it is the sequel to Herzog’s earlier mood film, Fata Morgana, from 1971, and even appears on the same DVD package with that film. Is Lessons Of Darkness profound? No. But that presumes it has an intellectual content. It has very little. Poetry abounds, especially the unconscious sort, and in Herzog’s voiceovers, quoting from the Book of Revelations. Is it an anti-war film? Not really. It has been called such by many critics, but they tend to miss alot. Reductionists often cannot see that a real artist, especially a great one like Herzog, always has more going on up his sleeve than the predictable rabbit or ace in the hole, even if we are not exactly sure what that squirming mass is. Lessons Of Darkness is a primal, emotional film that abstracts ideas of war beyond the conventional good and bad axis, to become something utterly unto its own set of natural laws (both war and the film), and as such makes most criticism of it superfluous, even silly. But, that does not mean it does not have layers to it, nor that it is not art, nor great art. It is. Taste it.
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.