Lessons of Darkness (1992)


Introduction

Lessons of Darkness (German: Lektionen in Finsternis) is a 1992 film by director Werner Herzog.

Shot in documentary style on 16mm film from the perspective of an almost alien observer, the film is an exploration of the ravaged oil fields of post-Gulf War Kuwait, decontextualised and characterised in such a way as to emphasise the terrain’s cataclysmic strangeness.

An effective companion to his earlier film Fata Morgana, Herzog again perceives the desert as a landscape with its own voice.

A co-production with Paul Berriff, the film was financed by the television studios Canal+ and Première.

Outline

The film is a meditation on catastrophe, contextualised through the literary modes of religion and science fiction. It begins with a quotation, attributed to Blaise Pascal: “The collapse of the stellar universe will occur – like creation – in grandiose splendor.” This attribution is apocryphal, as the text was in fact written by Herzog for the film and chosen, like the music, to give the film a certain mood. The prologue of the quotation is followed by thirteen sections, denoted by numbered title cards: “A Capital City”, “The War”, “After the Battle”, “Finds from Torture Chambers”, “Satan’s National Park”, “Childhood”, “And a Smoke Arose like a Smoke from a Furnace”, “A Pilgrimage”, “Dinosaurs on the Go”, “Protuberances”, “The Drying Up of the Source”, “Life Without the Fire” and “I am so tired of sighing; Lord, let it be night”.

Mostly devoid of commentary, the imagery concentrates on the aftermath of the first Gulf War – specifically on the Kuwaiti oil fires, although no relevant political or geographical information is mentioned. Herzog intended to alienate the audience from images to which they had become inured from saturated news coverage, and thereby to “penetrate deeper than CNN ever could”. Herzog uses a telephoto lens, truck-mounted shots as in Fata Morgana, static shots of the workers near the oil fires, and many helicopter shots of the bleak landscape. Through avoiding establishing shots, Herzog heightens the apocalyptic effect of depicting the devastated landscape. Herzog remarked that “the film has not a single frame that can be recognised as our planet, and yet we know it must have been shot here”.

Herzog’s sparse commentary interprets the imagery out of its documentary context, and into a poetic fiction: the opening narration begins “A planet in our solar system/ wide mountain ranges, clouds, the land shrouded in mist”. The narrative stance is detached, bemused; Herzog makes no effort to explain the actual causes of the catastrophic scenes, but interprets them in epic terms with vaunting rhetoric to accompany the Wagnerian score. The workers are described as “creatures” whose behaviour is motivated by madness and a desire to perpetuate the damage that they are witnessing. A climactic scene involves the workers, shortly after succeeding in stopping the fires, re-igniting the flow of oil. The narration asks, “Has life without fire become unbearable for them?”

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s): Werner Herzog.
  • Producer(s): Paul Berriff, Werner Herzog, and Lucki Stipetic.
  • Writer(s): Werner Herzog.
  • Narrator(s): Werner Herzog.
  • Cinematography: Simon Werry, Paul Berriff, and Rainer Klausmann.
  • Editor(s): Rainer Standke.
  • Production: Canal+, Premiere, and Werner Herzog Filmproduktion.
  • Distributor(s): Werner Herzog Filmproduktion.
  • Release Date: 26 October 1992 (Hong Kong).
  • Running Time: 50 minutes.
  • Country: UK, Germany, and France.
  • Language: English, German, and Arabic.

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