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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Lessons of Darkness (1992)



Reviews and Comments

After the first Gulf War, when the Kuwaiti oil wells were blazing and American troops were trying to put the fires out, Werner Herzog took a film crew out to capture some footage. The images he came back with are some of the most amazing I have ever seen: awesome, frightening, cataclysmic forces had taken the landscape and ravaged it. Huge oil spills spreading out across the desert and reflecting the sky like water. Roiling plumes of smoke. Blazing infernos. Vast stretches of nothing. This place didn't look terrestrial to me. Certainly it did not look like a place where people could survive.

The film lingers on these images and invites contemplation. This is not a movie for short attention spans, but it rewards the patient with a look and feeling no other film will give you. Long portions of it lack even narration. What narration there is is spoken by Herzog himself; his words are as poetic as his imagery.

Bizarrely, no mention is ever made of Kuwait or Iraq or the events that wrought such destruction on the land. In his mind, Herzog said in interviews later, he was not making a documentary but a science fiction film. This explains a strange remark late in the film, when the workers relight a gush of oil. The narration ascribes a motive of madness and tries to explain it as an idiosyncrasy of the human condition: that we invent problems to solve, because without problems, we lack purpose. The real reason was significantly more mundane: the flooding oil was spreading close to other fires in the area, and so it was set ablaze temporarily for safety reasons. Is Herzog lying in his film? Not if, as he said, his purpose was to make a science fiction film rather than a documentary. Still, the moment doesn't really work; instead of inspiring thought on the madness of the human condition, it merely inspires questions about what the filmmaker was thinking.

Other moments also feel out of place: a couple of interviews with civilians and tragedies that befell them during the war. Are they truthful, or is Herzog eliciting performances from them? Who can tell? True or not, they don't really fit with the more abstract and visual parts of the film.

Still, this is an amazing sequence of visuals, and I couldn't tear my eyes away, although sometimes I wanted to. There are no monsters in this film, no crazed killers, jump chords, or supernatural phenomena -- but somehow this is one scary movie all the same.