Throughout Werner Herzog’s filmography, he challenges the audience to face the ambiguity of what they are seeing: while it may exist on the screen, it may not represent concrete reality. In some of his weaker films, this may merely be an aesthetic decision—a Herzog stamp and branding. Herzog is not always totally free of criticism regarding the politics of his cinematic aestheticization. His late 20th century work was more likely to approach trauma, politics, and marginalized groups, and often caused friction in the public.
More so than most of his other films, the supposedly apolitical representation of war-torn Kuwait within his 1992 film, Lessons of Darkness, received maybe the most flak. In his pseudo-monograph Werner Herzog – A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin, Herzog claims the film “transcends the topical and practical; this could be any war and any country. The film is about the evil that human beings are capable of” (294). In this context Herzog creates an eternal portrayal of the insanity of war after distancing himself from the ways in which commercial media attempts to obfuscate mankind’s absurd brutality, in order to argue for the benefits of transcending topicality.
In the case of Lessons of Darkness, that “topic” is the world’s stickiest issue: war. The first Gulf War and the invasion of Kuwait is essentially forgotten, especially for westerners who are continually miseducated on Middle Eastern conflict.
The documentary consists of distinct chapters, depicting Kuwait through a poetic reframing. Rather than traditional documentary narrative, Herzog uses evocative narration and exaggerated framing to suggest that the film is about aliens visiting Earth, and discovering the Kuwaiti oil-field fires. The film primarily consists of helicopter shots of cast field ablaze. Occasional trips to the ground sometimes show archival footage, remnants of a torture bunker, and a single, brutal, civilian “interview.” It ends with the reigniting of oil fire, by the crews shown trying to extinguish and control the tempests. Herzog pleads over narration, “Has life without fire become unbearable for them?”
Lessons of Darkness is a direct attack on the snappy structure that was presenting the war. Front-line reporting, starting around the Vietnam War, had created a whole new type of visual language meant to promote the fast-paced, profit-oriented demand of TV news. Herzog even said in Perplexed “The networks and the cable channels had filmed it all wrong; that tabloid style of reporting, with its eight-seconds snippets, quickly inured audiences to the horrors” (293). In this quote, Herzog but rather tries to oppose the commercialized presentation narrativizing man’s unending insanity of war.
This context is in the film itself during the chapter “The War,” where Herzog uses archival footage made famous on CNN. However, his treatment of the material is relatively unadorned. The green and black night-vision video is its own sort of testament, unneeding of comment or aestheticization. This segment is the shortest one and its abruptness, low-quality footage, and sense of spectacle all echo the ideas of Herzog’s criticism of ad-friendly war coverage.
Though, is Herzog “successful” in transcending the particular, such as war and country, in favor of depicting humanity’s dark capability? Lessons of Darkness achieves a poetic ambiguity, but given how inundated audiences were with images of oil fields, destroyed cities, and the tools of torture it seems pretty naive for Herzog to think audiences would lose sight of the film’s more grounded context. The brutal, single interview is both painfully exploitative but entirely grounding of the film’s ethical praxis. Lessons of Darkness, at the least, achieves a cohesive and continuous presentation of war’s timeless insanity, even if it cannot transcend its apolitical, fantastical framing.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scene “Life Without Fire,” which recontextualizes the image of workers restarting the fire by manipulating into a symbol of mankind’s inability to overcome war. This scene stylizes the reality of the situation, which happens to be fairly mundane, and incorporates it into the film’s grander metaphor of madness. In other words, Herzog is knowingly capturing this image under the pretext of the film’s goal, rather than documenting the reigniting under its own terms.
The whole sequence of shots works under this pretext. The scene opens with a long shot, connecting it to the series of alienating images prior to this moment. Even though the firefighters have been depicted as heroic figures, there is still a sense of distance from them. Then, after they restart the fire, any attachment or trust the audience might have in them is depressingly crushed. Following this, the close-ups of the firefighters return to being totally alien and confusing; their hoods become bizarre masks and their off-putting smiles are apathetic to the destruction. As a result, it is not just Herzog’s narration and mise en scene that create his manipulated framework, but even the editing coheres to it. The limitations of the documentary process become a newfound fiction.
This is not to say that this is unproblematic, just that the film is operating under its own artistic, knowingly-fictitious structure. Simply because the film is cohesive does not mean it can avoid criticism. Ultimately, Lessons of Darkness deserves plenty of caution considering the trauma it is appropriating for art-house audiences, but there is an undeniable point to Herzog’s questionable apolticalism.
Herzog wholesale tries to avoid criticism for the film by presenting it from an alien’s perspective, which can easily be interpreted as a shirking of responsibility for the Kuwaiti victims and continuously ignorant western audience. However, the underlying reasoning behind this is fascinating and much more convincing in intention than the film manages to explain. Herzog said in his Perplexed, “There was something cosmic about the experience that went far beyond the politics of the events. It was like filming on a different planet… I set to record crimes perpetrated against not just humanity, but Creation itself” (296-297). This statement is specifically interesting in how it separates politics from humanity, suggesting that the incessant representation in politics, culture, and history hides the reality of destruction. This is reminiscent of his distaste for the way television news depicted war, which was safe, short, and commercial. Even TV punditry under this lens becomes narcissistic and pedantic. Herzog suggests that modern politics is simply a comfort people have created so as to ignore the fact that they really are no different from the perpetrators nor the victims.
While that is an engaging argument, it still needs to be taken with a bathtub of salt. Unfortunately, art-house documentaries do not prevent war or imperialism or madness. Could Lessons of Darkness inspire empathy or bridge the cultural or lingual gap westerners might expect to exist between such distant places? It seems likely given the strength of the film. Although, the idea that this film can transcend the tragedy it captures and would continue to take place, is absurd yet earnest. At its best, the film is subverting the images of Kuwait that television made profitable so as to enable viewers to see their own uncomfortable position and proximity to the chaos.