“Lessons of Darkness” (Lektionen in Finsternis, 1992) is almost a taunt of a title. Not only does Werner Herzog explicate no lessons, but most (maybe all?) of the documentary of the ravages of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of and retreat from Kuwait was shot by day.
Herzog wheeled out the Big Guns of music to accompany oddly beautiful shots of oil spilled and oil wells burning (they burned for seven months after Saddam Hussein retreated): a lot of Wagner, some Prokofiev, some “Peer Gynt,” some of the Verdi Requiem, and (rather astonishingly) some of the most exalted Mahler music from his “Resurrection” (2nd) Symphony for the last scene and through the closing credit. Plus Gothic chapter intertitles and an epigram from Blaise Pascal and chunks of Revelations. H-e-a-v-y!
But the images are apocalyptic, including panning through a torture cell, bubbling crude, sun-eclipsing smoke, seeming extraterrestrials fighting oil-well fires. The discussion of the movie on the DVD (text –not Herzog explaining himself, alas) says that it has “diabolically beautiful images.” Should ecological catastrophe look so beautiful, be so aestheticized?
I am quite sure that Herzog did not make the film as an indictment of Saddam Hussein. There is no mention of who invaded where, had the inhabitants tortured, and set the oil wells alight, and the opening aerial shots of Kuwait City blend into CNN footage of the “light show” of bombing Baghdad. The claim that the war “lasted only an hour” and that “all that is left of the city” from the opening shot (which I presume was Kuwait City after Saddam’s troops were pushed out) is the burning oil fields goes beyond poetic license IMO to constitute disinformation. Arguably, Herzog was attempting to emulate science fiction, simulating being from another planet and only partially understanding what is going on rather than to condemn or exonerate the destroyer who was responsible for many deaths as well as ecological catastrophe.
Although much of the film takes an above-the-world, out-of-this-world aesthetic perspective, there is testimony from two Kuwaitis. The first is a woman trying to speak but who has not been able to make recognizable sounds since the slaughter of her family. The second one has a young child who she says ceased speaking after witnessing his father being killed and whose head was trampled by soldiers (though they are not identified, clearly they were Iraqi). Perhaps Herzog found instances to fit his long-running fascination with muteness (“The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” etc.), but I suspect this is acting rather than reporting what happened.
And if Kuwait in 1992 was a prevision of apocalypse, it was not one set off by general human greed or obliviousness of nature, but by one individual. Moreover, the fires were extinguished. Indeed much of the movie shows this being done by what we know are men in protective gear, but which Herzog exoticizes by recording nothing they say and inviting viewers to see space aliens coming to undo the destructive follies that within the framework of the movie are mysterious.
Herzog has no commitment to drawing a line between fact and fiction in his films (“documentaries” or “fiction” ones). He has a fascination with extreme situations (of which trying to put out the oil well fires is the one here) and an eye for beauties in/of desolation, disturbing beauties, whether barren rocks, incinerated bones, or oil lakes reflecting the sky.
One thing “Lessons of Darkness” clearly is not is a narrative. Whatever in it may have been staged (regarded by some as an affront in a “documentary” since at least the days of “Nanook of the North”), Herzog documented a catastrophe caused by a human being and fires that human beings rather than extraterrestials extinguished.