If I had any doubts that Werner Herzog is one of the greatest working directors, Lessons of Darkness dispel them all. A fascinated and puzzling documentary, the film uses the burning oil fields in Kuwait to create a unique apocalyptic vision. Herzog himself said the film was less a documentary, and more an exercise in science fiction. Instilling both awe and disgust in the audience, most of the film is a camera panning overhead or on the ground as workers attempt to put out the blaze. Two interviews are included, they are short but powerful. Both are linked by the fate of the victims, in the first a mother watched as her two sons were tortured, since then she wasn’t able to speak. Instead she murmurs and uses her hands to articulate. The second a young woman and her young child are on camera, she first explains the effects of the smoke, and then her encounter with soldiers who killed her husband and nearly killed her son. At the time of the interview, it had been a year since this has happened, in all that time her son has only ever spoken once; to tell his mother he never wants to learn to speak. The men in the fire on the other hand are faceless, at least until the last few scenes. In a puzzling choice of words, Herzog calls their journey to the oil fields a pilgrimage.
In one of the many disturbing images presented in the film, he suggests instead of a pilgrimage to a sacred and spiritual place, these men are travelling to hell itself. It’s not only the raging fires that suggest a hell on earth, but the death of everything around it. The oil has overtaken all that is living, corrupted minds with greed, killed all hope of vegetation. Instead of lakes of water, there is are deceiving lakes of black oil that reflect the sky. If water is life, than oil is death. The raging fires and the ever present darkness of the smoke and the oil quite honestly made me ill. There is a sequence where the oil is boiling, and all it reminded me of were the pools of boiling blood that engulfed the murderers in Dante’s own vision of hell. Oil is so deceiving, so ugly and yet so close to being beautiful. Herzog plays with these illusions very carefully, as oil itself becomes evil, deceiving our eyes as it masks for water and blood.
Very little information is offered on what exactly we are seeing, and Herzog’s intertitles and narrations are allegorical rather than factual. This is perhaps why he chooses to call the film science fiction rather than documentary. Yet, in his little factual-fiction he offers a far more potent portrait of war than most films. Without showing combat, or real death the vision of what the world has become is sickening in itself. The war may have raged for but hours, but the effects are irreversible. If you like Koyaanisqatsi, this film is an almost obvious choice. It’s focus does seem to be on war and questions of spirituality, but this is also one of the most devastating environmental disasters in modern history. Add in the similarly impressionistic presentation, albeit in a much shorter format, I can’t see what would prevent you from enjoying this.