Werner Herzog’s documentary films lie at an extreme distance from the Anglo-American tradition of documentary filmmaking. Part of that distance can be linked to the distinction between two fundamental stances towards the depiction of reality: “Objectivism” and “Interactionism”, which I have discussed in other essays, for example, Avatar (2009), Close-Up (1990), and SiCKO (2007). American documentarians generally align themselves with Objectivism and hold that they are presenting an objective view of reality. An extreme form of this approach is “direct cinema”, which seeks to create the illusion that the filmmaker is an invisible “fly on the wall” and has no impact on the subjects being filmed, thereby supposedly ensuring scientific objectivity. But even in more conventional American documentaries with explicitly polemical content, there is a presumption that objective reality, independent of any observer, is being presented. Continental European documentary filmmakers, on the other hand, have had a tendency to lean towards Interactionism and have made more personal films in which the filmmaker and his or her point of view is a confessed part of the narrative. Herzog is so much on the Interactionist side of the ledger that his documentary films not only include his personal perspective, but seem primarily to be his own personal essays about the world – he, himself, is an implicit focus of the film, and the “reality” depicted is self-consciously Herzog’s own reality. Lessons of Darkness (Lektionen in Finsternis, 1992), which was shot in Kuwait in the immediate aftermath of the First Gulf War (1990-91) is one such example of Herzog’s style.
Although focussed on the harrowing events and ravages that happened in Iraq and Kuwait during that time, Lessons of Darkness has clear-cut affinities with Herzog’s first documentary Fata Morgana (1971), which was shot in Africa. In that earlier film Herzog edited footage that he had (seemingly randomly) shot in the African Sahel and tried to fashion a dark vision about man’s hopeless ineffectiveness, and consequently likely impermanent existence, on the planet – an ephemeral existence like a mirage. Some twenty years later, with Lessons of Darkness, Herzog again collected footage, this time in Kuwait, and then assembled his photographic essay in post-production, and again his vision is one of dark apocalypse and pessimism concerning man’s prospects for a sustainable future. In fact both Fata Morgana and Lessons of Darkness contain vague commentary that suggests that humankind on Earth is being clinically observed, with amazement and horror, by a visitor from another planet. However, in neither film is there any real narrative or sequence of events that could amount to a story – they are both more or less personal essays of despair. But if we assert that they are both cinematic commentaries, we have also to concede that neither of these two films provides an explicit disquisition or argument, or even has a clearly articulated thesis. What we are really presented with is just a suggestive sequence of images, on which the viewer reflectively fills in many of the blanks and faces a greater-than-usual task of constructing his or her own story or vision. This process of placing much of the narrative burden on the viewer essentially fails with Fata Morgana (which was almost a random collection of lurid images of garish and pathetic human folly), but is more successful with Lessons of Darkness, primarily because the viewer in this case is more likely to bring to the film considerable familiarity with what happened during the “First Gulf War”and use that material for his own imaginative reconstructions.
The greater part of Lessons of Darkness consists of lurid scenes of fires in the Kuwaiti oilfields burning out of control and spewing gargantuan clouds of smoke. These images are interspersed with images of devastation, both at the physical and human level, and with human firefighters seemingly overmatched in their efforts to quell the multiple, raging infernos. The images are apparently meant to be abstractly horrific, and there is almost no spoken dialogue and no explicit reference to the Gulf War, or to specific places, or to any historical context. To set some kind of context Lessons of Darkness opens with images of wasteland and destruction, and the prologue refers to a planet “in our solar system” which evidently has undergone a catastrophic war. So the viewer sees things simultaneously with respect to two overarching narrative perspectives: the real Gulf War and an abstract metaphorical fable of how bizarre humankind’s self-destructive impulses might be to a detached, external observer. The film is then presented partitioned into thirteen chapters, each identified by apocalyptic, perhaps oracular, intertitles which suggest chapters to some sort of apocryphal Book of Revelations.
- “A Capital City”. This section features an opening voiceover narration with images of Kuwait City filmed from a low-flying helicopter, ominously suggesting that this doomed city will soon be utterly destroyed by warfare (it wasn’t, and this footage was filmed after the conflict).
- “The War”. Here is shown footage of the aerial bombing of Iraq as seen via night-vision video cameras. Although this section is relatively short and no mention of “Operation of Desert Storm” is made, the context is likely to be familiar to a worldwide audience, since it was widely viewed on CNN.
- “After the Battle”. Images of war devastation are presented.
- “Torture Chambers”. This thankfully brief section is one of the most memorable, though difficult to bear, sections in the film. First is shown what is apparently the insides of one of the torture chambers run by Saddam Hussein’s government, and it features a mute display of mechanical devices designed to inflict unbearable pain. Then an Arab woman is shown who was been rendered almost permanently speechless by having been forced by the authorities to witness her own sons being tortured to death.
- “Satan’s National Park”. Helicopter footage of what seems to be a vast marshland are revealed to be in fact entirely flooded with oil.
- “Childhood”. Another Arab mother is shown, this time with a young, disturbed boy who has been rendered speechless by what he has witnessed during the conflict. As with the woman shown earlier, the horror of what happened is not shown, it is only something so unspeakable that one cannot bear to think about it. The viewer’s imagination then fills in the blanks.
- “And A Smoke Arose Like The Smoke From A Furnace”. Here, 23 minutes into the film, the raging fires take over the screen. Again, they are filmed from low-flying helicopters.
- “A Pilgrimage”. Now the (American) firefighters are shown, sometimes relatively up close and at other times at a distance and dwarfed by the towering flames of the fires that burn endlessly. This section shows the firefighters using explosives to try to put out the fire.
- “A Dinosaur’s Feast”. This is more or less a continuation of the previous section showing the firefighters, but now emphasizing some of the huge construction and excavation machines employed in their work. The machinery has monster-like appearances, with arching cranes, serpentine bodies, and huge digging claws.
- “Protuberances” – a brief section showing closeups of oil–and-mud swamps bubbling and frothing, and evoking more nightmarish images of Hell.
- “The Drying Up of the Wells”. The oil-covered firefighters are shown, often in slow-motion, intensely engaged in the mechanics of their operations. The functional nature of these activities is incomprehensible to the typical viewer, and it all appears perhaps as an abstract Ballet Mécanique from the dark side. The macabre strangeness of it all, and the degree to which these operations seem to be foreign to what we might call normal human intercourse, are worth comparing to Louis Malle’s documentary, Humain, Trop Humain (1974).
- “Life Without Fire”. With many of the fires now apparently been extinguished, the voiceover commentary of the interplanetary visitor expresses wonder as these strange creatures to him (i.e. the firefighters) engage in the baffling act of relighting an extinguished geyser of oil. He comments: "Has life without fire become unbearable for them? . . . . . Others, seized by madness, follow suit. . . . . Now they are content, now there’s something to extinguish again.”
- “I am So Weary of Sighing, O Lord, Grant That the Night Cometh”. The final portion returns to the fires, themselves, carrying with it an air of resignation and gloom.
Herzog’s fascination with fire extends to a fascination with its opposite, darkness (hence the title). The demonic forces that lurk inside the hearts of men seem to be beyond civilized understanding or rational control. These issues or cruelty and madness are as elemental as fire, itself, and are not confined to the Middle East . This apparently was Herzog’s project: not to focus on just the particular horror of what happened in one part of the globe, but to fashion a fiction that would portray a more universal damnation. To this end, he opens the film with his own fabricated quotation ("The collapse of the stellar universe will occur, like creation, in grandiose splendor”) which he probably attributes to Blaise Pascal in order to give it the appropriate resonance – Pascal is perhaps not so well-known to English-speaking audiences, but his genius occupies a peculiarly iconic place in the European mind.
The horror that Herzog attempts to convey by his images of man-made Hell is enhanced by its unspeakable nature – it is beyond human articulation. Instead of a deafening roar from the fires drowning out occasional shouts from the firefighters, much of the stoundtrack is filled with funereal, dirge-like orchestral music from Mahler, Prokofieff, Verdi, Wagner, and Arvo Part. The unspeakable nature of this horror is explicitly referenced by the two mothers: one mother is unable to speak comprehensibly, and the child of the other mother has been rendered speechless by rational choice. It is left to our imaginations to fill out these nightmares.
- For example, consider the use of germ warfare by the Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45). Here is a quotation from that article:
“The methods were brutal. Army trucks dumped gallons of deadly germs alongside roads and railway lines linking Chinese towns so that infections would spread from town to town; planes dropped porcelain bombs containing infected fleas on dozens of villages, causing devastating outbreaks of bubonic plague. The Japanese laced more than 1,000 wells in the area of Harbin with typhoid bacilli. They also inserted typhus into bottles of lemonade that children loved to drink in the summer, Harris reported. In Nanking, they distributed anthrax-filled chocolate and cake to hungry children. The Japanese discovered that packing fountain pens and walking sticks with deadly germs was a particularly effective way of secretly disseminating them. In 1940, Major General Ishii sent a train carrying 70 kilograms of typhus bacterium, 50 kilograms of cholera germs, and 5 kilograms of plague-infected fleas to the city of Hangzhou, a holiday resort favored by Shanghai’s wealthy. From there, the germs were dumped into ponds and reservoirs and spread by aerial spraying, contaminating all life in fields of wheat and millet during the harvest.”