“A planet in our solar system. Wide mountains ranges, clouds, a land shrouded in mist.” The landscape of Lessons of Darkness at first glance looks like the desert counterpart to the Carpathian Mountains of Werner Herzog‘s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, a land shrouded in myth as much as in mist. But those initial ethereal images give way to a wasteland of death and fire. It could be a primordial planet in the throes of it birth or the aftermath of an apocalyptic war that has left the planet dying, choking on its own blight.
In 1990 Iraq invaded the tiny, oil-rich desert kingdom of Kuwait on the Persian Gulf and occupied the country until an international military coalition led by the United States drove the Iraqi army back over the border. The Iraqi forces set fire to over 700 oil wells in their retreat. It was an ecological disaster, polluting the skies with thick black smoke and soaking the sands in a smothering slick of spilled oil. The inferno burned for eight months before the last of the fires were extinguished.
Herzog arrived in Kuwait six months after the end of the Gulf War with British cameraman / producer Paul Berriff to photograph the devastation before the last of the wells were snuffed and recapped. Herzog, true to form, crafted his own story from the documentary footage.
In Fata Morgana (1971), the director’s third feature, Herzog photographed the deserts of The Sahara, East Africa, and Uganda, a landscape of empty vistas and ruins of abandoned machinery being reclaimed by eternity. He fashioned his footage into a hypnotic, hallucinatory vision of the creation myth. Lessons of Darkness could be its bookend, the end of days of a world bent on self-destruction.
“After the first war in Iraq, as the oil fields burned in Kuwait, the media—and here I mean television in particular—was in no position to show what was, beyond being a war crime, an event of cosmic dimensions, a crime against creation itself. There is not a single frame in Lessons of Darkness in which you can recognize our planet; for this reason the film is labeled “science fiction,” as if it could only have been shot in a distant galaxy, hostile to life.” – Werner Herzog, 2010
The camera glides over the modern cityscape of Kuwait City as if making first contact with another planet or a futuristic settlement. The distinctive green of nightvision photography of footage from CNN’s coverage of the air attack on Kuwait is ghostly and unreal, like a transmission from outer space decoded by scientists, yet instantly recognizable to anyone who watched the war on TV just a year before the documentary was released. The wasteland left after battle is littered with the remains of civilization, the vehicles like animal corpses and the webbed skeletons of radio dishes a dead forest of some exotic plant gone extinct. Paul Berriff’s images turn the familiar (or at the very least the terrestrial) into something otherworldly and alien. Herzog turns the footage into a visit to another planet.
It’s not entirely accurate to call the non-fiction films of Herzog “documentaries.” He has never denied that he stages scenes for the benefit of his films and sometimes gives his subjects lines to speak to the camera. The very act of pointing a camera, cutting two images together, adding music or narration to footage, and editing hours of footage into a film imposes a narrative on the imagery. Herzog takes that reality as a freedom to take his choices even further. He frames the imagery with the story of a far-off war that lasted only an hour and left the planet a dead, burning husk, part nuclear holocaust and part holy Armageddon. He even makes up the quote, attributed to Blaise Pascal, which opens the film: “The collapse of stellar systems will occur—like creation—in grandiose splendor.” “Pascal himself could not have said it better,” he remarked in a lecture years later.
Herzog narrates without once voicing the names of Iraq, Kuwait, or the Gulf War, using the quiet, placid tones of his German-accented English to turn description into storytelling. Apart from a few key scenes, the images are all but abstracted from the real-life war that ignited the flames. It’s terrible and beautiful, devastation photographed with a dreamy grace and set to passages of music by Verdi, Wagner, Mahler, Prokofiev, and Pärt, passages that give the imagery a mythic identity and an elemental grandeur.
At two points in Lessons of Darkness Herzog turns to survivors of the war, both women. The first watched her two sons be tortured to death and lost the capacity to speak from the shock. The second, a younger woman, holds a young boy who was beaten by soldiers and hasn’t spoken since, except to say “Mommy, I don’t want to speak anymore.” Or so Herzog’s narration informs us. Can we trust his accounting of their stories, or even that he’s translating the mother’s testimony? Has he rewritten their experiences to better become characters in a Herzog fiction? Is that even important? Accurate or not, their grief and pain is palpable and scenes are haunting moments that bring it all back to Earth.
Berriff uses telephoto lenses to remain back from the inhuman heat, created by months of full burn, as he films the men battling the blazes. The effect makes the ordeal look even more hellish for the extreme firemen, compressing distances until it looks like the men are at the door of hell and about to walk through. Sprays of water evaporate before they even get close to the flames and the hoses are constantly turned on men and machine alike to cool them down. The mythic conceit of Herzog’s imagination and the elemental reality of the events converge in these scenes.
“Two figures are approaching an oil well. One of them holds a lighted torch. What are they up to? Are they going to rekindle the blaze? Has life without fire become unbearable for them?” After extinguishing one well, a man lights it back up, sending a fresh plume of flame shooting up through the desert floor. It seems like madness to us, even without Herzog’s commentary. In reality, as Herzog explained at a festival screening, he simply asked the firefighter to reignite a well for the camera and he agreed because the hard work was done. It was the heat from months of burning that made the fires so hard to put out and it took weeks of dousing the surrounding area to cool the ground down enough. Snuffing a fresh fire would be easy in real life. But for Herzog’s purpose, it becomes an image of men driven to madness by the ordeal.
In 1977, Werner Herzog took his crew to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in the hopes of photographing the eruption of a volcano. Part of the beauty of La Soufrière (1977) is that he waits for a fiery explosion that never happens and ends up chronicling an evacuated island taken over by the elements, the animals, and sheer entropy. 15 years later, Lessons of Darkness gave Herzog his portrait of a fiery end of the world.
The same year that Herzog completed Lessons of Darkness, IMAX released Fires of Kuwait. Shot on 65mm film and shown exclusively in IMAX large format theaters, the thirty-six-minute documentary constructed a more conventional documentary portrait of the subject around stunning images that trade mystery for scale. It became the first IMAX production to be nominated for an Academy Award while Herzog’s film made the film festival circuit and then premiered on cable TV in the US, shown on The Discovery Channel in a truncated form. The channel did not bother to warn audiences of Herzog’s fictions. One wonders if they actually watched it before showing it. Or perhaps they were so entranced by the imagery that they simply missed the text. Herzog’s hypnotic filmmaking and blurring of fiction and documentary has a way of casting a spell over viewers.