Werner Herzog’s 'Lessons of Darkness'
Despite growing up in Germany, I only discovered Werner Herzog relatively late. While I was aware of his work from early on, Lessons of Darkness was really the first Herzog film I ever watched. Now, having seen many of his other films, Lessons of Darkness--while not necessarily my all-time favorite Herzog film--still sticks in my mind as it so vividly introduced me to his particular brand of storytelling and approach to truth and fiction.
Herzog directed Lessons of Darkness in 1991. Working in collaboration with the British cinematographer and co-producer Paul Berriff, he traveled to Kuwait to film the burning oil fields set on fire by retreating Iraqi troops during the last days of the Gulf War. Yet what emerges is less a documentary about post-war Kuwait than an apocalyptic vision of hell on earth--or, as Herzog called it, "a requiem for an inhabitable planet."
Mesmerizing images of the mutilated landscape--the shattered remains of a satellite dish, deserted shells of buildings and gigantic towers of blazing flames--and eerie shots of the fire fighters at work--themselves appearing like alien creatures silently communicating with each other--are combined with Herzog's sparse narration to create a (pseudo) biblical tale of destruction and man's uneasy relationship with the natural world. While finding beauty in the devastation, Herzog renders the humans in the film almost speechless (the motive of language is common to many of his films).
At the premiere of the film at the Berlinale in 1992, Herzog was criticized for not only "aestheticizing" the horror of the conflict, but also for removing any historical or political context for it. Yet for me, it is exactly this that gives the film its timeless quality and lifts it to a different cinematic level. By not naming Kuwait and through the stylization of the images, the film transcends the particular and specific, and allows the viewer to look at the conflict from a different perspective. This is about any war and any country.
Seeing Lessons of Darkness again at a film festival in 2006, I was once more struck by the unsettling beauty of the images and how they and the music drive the story forward. But, most importantly, I could by then fully appreciate how Herzog re-contextualizes and fictionalizes documentary footage in order to tell a story. One, and probably the most obvious, example in Lessons of Darkness is of course the quotation at the beginning of the film, which is attributed to Blaise Pascal, but was in fact written by Herzog himself.
While I chose to write about Lessons of Darkness in particular, I love the way Herzog, for the sake of storytelling, blurs the line between truth and fiction in all of his films--be it his documentaries containing fiction, or his fiction films containing fact. He is not afraid to unashamedly manipulate the audience to set a certain mood for a film (as with the quotation in Lessons of Darkness), or to stage, script or fabricate whole sequences if he feels there is no other or better way to unearth the deeper truth in a documentary. In many ways, I love Herzog's attitude towards filmmaking just as much as his films.
Originally from Germany, Eva Weber is a London-based filmmaker working in documentary and fiction. Her film The Solitary Life of Cranes was nominated for a 2009 IDA Documentary Award in the Short Documentary category, and she is currently developing the feature documentary Life in Transit, with the assistance of the UK Film Council.