Comfortable and Furious

Lessons of Darkness (1992)

The fantastically-appropriately titled Lessons of Darkness is without question Herzog’s darkest hour. Does a less joyful piece of art exist? Works on the Holocaust spring to mind, but they can be dismissed for this film chronicles not simply man’s inhumanity to man, but man’s hostility towards the very universe he lives in. A primordial anger, an ancient rage if you will, is morbidly captured on film and narrated by the Book of Revelations, accounts of the last days of Atlantis, Verdi, Schubert, Wagner and Mahler (among others).

So bleak and total is the devastation that viewer is left jarred to his/her core, unsure of the point of anything. Friends, we are brutal monsters and we are reshaping the earth in our own image. Humanity, love, dignity? Forget them entirely. Death, desolation, lifelessness and most essentially horror rule the day. We are living, and apparently striving, for the deep bottom of a very dark sea. Honestly, only out and out nihilists and solipsists could watch Lessons of Darkness and not feel the bottoms drop from their stomachs.

Before we can discuss the specific “plot” of the film, words must be spoken about Herzog’s documentaries. They are fiction. Yet, as Herzog maintains (and I mostly agree with), larger truths can be achieved this way then by simply turning on a camera and shooting. For then, you are just capturing the “truth of accountants,” not the ecstatic truth that Herzog is concerned with; obsessed with. By taking his documentaries out of the confines of the specific and the actual, Herzog is able to magnify their scope to much grander proportions. Sometimes, “regular” documentaries are able to accomplish

The great Spellbound instantly leaps to mind, for it actually has something to say about the human condition rather than just being a document, a pause in time. Moreover, Herzog repeatedly states that he is much more keen to make a film using his “knees and thighs” rather then his head. His guts as opposed to his mind. Remember, we are talking about a man who when asked what his ideal film school would be like, stated that it would only contain a boxing ring.

As a result, his documentaries function on a much more emotional level than the norm, which are for the most part just a recounting of facts; a legal proceeding. His are operas, demanding emotional responses from the viewer, though never in a clever or manipulative way.

The rightful heir to the mesmerizing Fata Morgana, Lessons of Darkness is that film turned on its head. Filmed in essentially the same manner–swooping helicopter shots depicting the earth as an alien landscape, strange peoples shown without explanation, epic narration and a sweeping score–Lessons of Darkness makes the earlier film
look like what it is; a happy go lucky romp through strange lands. Filmed in Kuwait during the aftermath of the first Gulf War entirely in Kuwait (the tragedy of a second Gulf War will not be lost on anyone viewing Lessons), we are shown a burned land where fires rage out of control, water has been replaced with black, lifeless oil and human misery is both manifest and paramount.

Take your pick of the heinous shit; we meet two women. The first has lost the ability to
speak because she was forced to watch soldiers torture both of her grown sons to death. The second tells of how her son dripped black ooze out of every hole in his head. Then a solider crushed that same head with a boot and now he’s lost the ability, or rather the will, to speak. And again, it is never explained who these women are or who
the aggressors are. Rather, they are just victims of the horror. The only other humans we are shown are American firefighters, very much appearing to be extraterrestrials. The firefighters construct these intensely intricate sculptures that seem to be intended to extinguish the fires.

However, we watch with mixed terror and delight as these same men restart the fires by hurling balls of flame into geysers of oil, for as Herzog explains, they (and by implication us) simply cannot live in a world without it. I have covered this ground before (and so has Herzog) but one aspect of cinema that has fascinated and mesmerized me since I could open my eyes is movies’ ability to transport us to another world.

Herzog calls it the search for adequate images. And while I am on board with his philosophical maxim, I believe I enjoy the journey more so than the result. Because I believe, unlike Herzog, that society has a lack of adequate imagery because we are so flawed as a species. Fuck it man, just entertain me; blow me away. The first two (“real” as my mother would say) Star Wars films excelled in this regard. The desert planet of Tattooine, the ice world of Hoth and the serenity of Cloud City were all so beautifully
other-worldly, so foreign, so actually alien, that to this day they stand out in my mind as true artistic achievements. Smoke and mirrors, sure, but a young George Lucas was able to take a part of my world and make it so impossibly unearthly that it simply had to be elsewhere.

Feel free to contrast these with the digital-diarrhea of Lucas’s more recent efforts; inadequate imagery, indeed. Quite comparatively Lessons of Darkness (and by association Fata Morgana) simply are not of our world. They exist somewhere else entirely.

The brilliance of Herzog (as opposed to the self-serving megalomania of Lucas) lies in the fact that he is not documenting. He is creating. In this case, he shows us not Kuwait, but the results of a world addicted to oil and war and war for oil. It is our own demise, and the mad fucker captured it on film! For we are not able to simply watch Lessons of Darkness and say, “yep, the Gulf War sucked,” no. Rather we are forced, quite masterfully, into acknowledging that we suck. Furthermore, all war sucks. It robs us of our dignity, our grace, and our very humanity.

Folks, there are countless billions of planets floating around in the dead vacuum of space that are without light, filled with fire and beyond hope. We’re just queuing up for our tickets to the end of all things. And perhaps there is nothing wrong with that? Perhaps a race of creatures as vile, petty and shortsighted as we are deserve such a fate? All evidence seems to sadly indicate so, for what else could be the lessons of darkness?