Earlier this month Werner Herzog's Lessons of Darkness
from 1992 screened as part of the Tales from Planet Earth film festival which aims to highlight environmental issues and promote awareness.
Clocking in a bit under an hour, Lessons of Darkness
begins with an apocryphal quote credited to Blaise Pascal and is divided into 13 sections delineated by intertitles which show the aftermath of the first Gulf War. The first section is called "A Capital City" which is a long aerial shot of what I presume to be Kuwait City. Today we are used to Herzog's iconic voice describing his subject (and how pitifully small and unimportant humanity is) but voiceover narration is very sparse here and he gives us no context for what we see – no when, where, or how. It's an "abandon all hope ye who enter here" kind of moment as the city looks to be fine but, as the film continues, it's not unlike a decent into hell.
Set to a backdrop of Mahler, Wagner, and others, Herzog shows us what a war zone looks like after the war. With his camera in a vehicle, we see the desertscape go by littered with the burned out shells of tanks and trucks. Another tracking shot shows us the inside of a torture chamber. We can see the implements of torture scattered about but the victims and torturers are gone. Next up are aerial shots of the remains of Kuwaiti oil infrastructure. Pipes and storage tanks are twisted and collapsed almost beyond recognition – presumably they burned for days on end.
More aerial shots give us vast miles of desert sand soaked in oil, pot marked with lakes of crude, and cut by freshly plowed roads to reveal the white underneath. And in the background there are fires belching thick, black smoke that obscures the sky. These are the oil fields lit afire by the Iraqis as they retreated. These images truly look like a planet other than Earth. With feet planted on the ground Herzog and his crew use long lenses to capture the drama of men attempting to put out the oil well fires and affix new caps on the wellheads. No Wagner is needed here as the roaring flames, water hoses, and machinery create a din which, when combined with the hellish imagery, gives rise to an infernal gesamtkunstwerk
I would imagine that the festival organizers were hoping that the audience responded to all that smoke and oil-soaked sand as an environmental disaster and perhaps take action to reduce the use of fossil fuels. While I don't feel that Herzog is indifferent to the disaster, I couldn't help but feel that he was also up to his old tricks in pointing out human folly. By not giving his audience much in the way of context, it feels like he's saying that this is just one in a long line of catastrophes that will continue into the future, that we will never learn. Also note that life seemed to be going on as normal in the capital city while the hell is off somewhere else as if it were someone else's problem. Like it's just a bump in the road for civilization that marches on to the next disaster never having learned it lesson.
Labels: Cinema, Documentary, Werner Herzog