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910 - Lessons of Darkness 
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Assistant Second Unit Director

Joined: Tue May 03, 2011 8:39 pm
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Location: Juneau, Alaska
Post 910 - Lessons of Darkness
Lessons of Darkness. U/A Films presents a Le Studio Canal+ production. Written, narrated, and directed by Werner Herzog. Running time: 54 minutes. Original German theatrical release date: February 21, 1992. In English and German.

In Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, the famed German New Wave director finally reaches the inevitable conclusion that human nature is going to destroy itself, and that it might be too late to save. “If we do not get new images,” Herzog has famously said, “we will go the way of the dinosaur.” In this case, our extinction comes not by a natural disaster, but by one perpetrated by our own hand—by our very obsession with our need to destroy and embrace chaos. If artists fail in their quest for new images—if we indeed give up that search—then Lesson of Darkness reveals how our universe will end, according to Herzog, and the film’s origins indicate that this end will probably come sooner rather than later.

Lessons of Darkness is simultaneously one of the best documentaries, science fictions, and anti-war films ever made. That it succeeds at all three would be utterly stupefying if we were not already aware of Herzog’s own visionary obsession to push artistic and cinematic boundaries into places that most filmmakers only dream of. If this puzzling work had come from any other director, we’d have been blindsided by its bold, unique achievement. Since it’s from Herzog, we expect unique images and bizarre storytelling devices; going in, we have to literally expect the unexpected. The shock therefore resonates less than the message, and this is a compliment to Herzog as a filmmaker.

The film isn’t so much a narrative as it is documentation, though the real-life footage that we are seeing is certainly used in a manner far removed from truth. This mixture of truth and fiction is what makes the picture so hard to pinpoint, and it is what makes Herzog’s films so unique—it is often impossible to distinguish truth from fiction, as his fictitious films contain actions and reactions that are genuine and unscripted (see Fitzcarraldo), and his documentaries blend as much fiction as they do fact. We are constantly trying to filter out truth from lies as we watch Herzog, which is ironic in its own way since he merely purports to do what all media does, except he has the audacity to make his actions clear.

The truth of the matter: As the first Gulf War came to a close, the Iraqi army set Kuwait’s oil fields on fire, and American companies rushed in to dispel the fires. Herzog hurried in with a team of filmmakers to record the fires and the attempts to vanquish them. Along the way, he also recorded a few testimonies of victims of the war and many unbroken, unforgettable shots via a helicopter of the destruction that the war caused—not least of all the lakes of oil that spread out all over the land, which looks so much like water that without Herzog’s narration, our eyes would have tricked us into believing that these are natural ponds and rivers. The devastation is remarkable, yet disturbingly beautiful.

The fiction of the matter: Instead of editing together a simple documentary, Herzog used the images to create a cautionary, science-fiction fable of “a planet in our solar system,” which contains a city plagued by a war that “only lasted a few hours.” The few survivors are left to repair the damage, put out the fires, and clean up the oil, which, Herzog explains in narration, is “all that is left of the great city.” The effect is dizzying, to suggest that human beings and their tools (including a behemoth bulldozers, water hoses, and elaborate oil rigs) are not what our eyes tell us they are, but are instead alien beings, and that we are viewing the damages of wars on an alien planet. The premise is so bold that I’m not sure if we are ever able to successfully suspend our disbelief.

Yet I think the failure for such suspension is part of Herzog’s ultimate point, because as we watch, we’re not sure if it is this planet that is alien, or if the alien is Herzog himself, who provides the films’ narration. Either interpretation works: If Herzog is the being from another world, and the world is ours, he is observing our actions and shaking his head sadly—indeed, such a visitor would find much to be sad about. If we can suspend our disbelief and allow ourselves to see this as a planet other than Earth, it allows us to distance ourselves from the reality of the images and consider the greater implications of what Herzog is trying to tell us: If this is an alien world, it is so much like ours that we have much to learn from it—and we had better take the aliens’ plight to war seriously. They are capable of destroying their greatest city in only a few hours, and when it is destroyed, they try in vain to gather enough decency to clean it up. The paradox greatly reflects our own nature as warriors—why else would the terms “liberators” and “occupiers” seem so interchangeable these days?

Frankenstein-author Mary Shelley (whose seminal work makes for appropriate comparison) put the dilemma this way: “It is well that you come here to whine over the desolation that you have made. You throw a torch into a pile of buildings, and when they are consumed, you sit among the ruins and lament the fall. Hypocritical fiend!” The hypocrisy runs deep in Herzog’s vision, as do the ruins: In the final moments of Lessons of Darkness, something takes place that it utterly unbelievable, both as reality and as fiction, and we realize that Herzog’s prophecy that we have become beings that exist only for our own destruction rings completely true.

Herzog is also a strong advocator for what he calls a “new language” that he claims people need to learn, to enable them to experience themselves and their humanity in a new light. It is curious that the only two interviewees are local Kuwait residents who have both been so traumatized by the war that they can no longer speak. They communicate through grunts and hand gestures, but the language of man is too hurtful, and they have separated themselves from it. A haunting scene in which Herzog films the inside of a torture chamber and all of its “utensils”—some of which still have blood on them—separates the two interviews. In this scene, we are given no dialogue or narration—simply an unbroken camera sweeping through the room, and the sound of the cameraman’s footsteps. Herzog seems to imply that the destruction of civilization brings about the destruction of our language and, thus, our ability to communicate deteriorates. Only by inventing a new language will be able to experience one another in purity again, and thus reinvent ourselves and destroy the vicious cycle of death and war.

Mon May 09, 2011 9:13 pm
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Assistant Second Unit Director

Joined: Tue May 03, 2011 8:39 pm
Posts: 58
Location: Juneau, Alaska
Post Re: 910 - Lessons of Darkness

Comparisons must be made between Lessons of Darkness and Herzog’s Fata Morgana (1971), which utilized a similar, non-linear filmmaking technique that downplayed any story and narration and simply allowed us to be haunted by the images that Herzog presented. That film told a Mayan creation myth behind haunting images of the Sahara desert, and its moving pictures essentially spoke for themselves. Because of their similar formats, we should probably consider Lessons as a follow-up to Morgana, as the older film is about creation while the latter concerns the destruction of a planet. I think that Lessons eventually provides a much clearer moral than Morgana, but they are particularly similar in the way that they reveal that the images of cinema are enough to evoke us, with spoken word and linear stories sometimes rendered obsolete.

But if we choose to view this film as a work of science fiction, then it must also be considered as a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which seems to be Herzog’s chief inspiration. Like Kubrick, Herzog stresses unbroken, meditative images over narrative and characters, and he uses a classical music soundtrack to heighten the effect of what we are seeing. But if Kubrick dealt with the discovery of the universe’s secrets, Herzog signals the universe’s destruction, and his images and soundtrack fit accordingly. Whereas Kubrick used mysterious, eloquent pieces by Strauss to compliment the stillness of space, Herzog implements the melodramatic, apocalyptic works of Wagner and Schubert over stark images of fire, smoke, bubbling oil, and war-spoiled architecture. The effect is often devastating, particularly in the moments that the camera rests on fire fighters dousing themselves with water to keep themselves cool from the billowing heat. There is a feeling of franticness here, even as the workers move surreally in slow motion. As the fire blazes behind them and the terrifying soundtrack plays, we feel the pain in their tired bones, and we know that their task is far from over; indeed, their planet will be destroyed before they can find their rest, and unbelievably, they would probably prefer that destruction over peace.

Herzog’s quest for “new images” has never been darker than it is here, and certainly never as cautionary. Even the dark, disturbing Aguirre: The Wrath of God isolated one man’s destructive madness and rendered him helpless when faced with the hostility of nature. By the time we reach the final moments of Lessons of Darkness, it seems that our own hostility is now even capable of overcoming the powerful grasp of nature. The more war-like we become, the more our planet recoils in fear: The tides have turned; now we have the power to totally destroy, and we lack the responsibility to use this power wisely (if it is possible to use such power wisely at all). If Kubrick sought to reveal how small and insignificant we are under the weight of the universe, Herzog discloses that we might not be so small at all—that we are, in fact, capable of smothering the universe in our quest to self destruct. Herzog’s observation is bleak, but it is also unforgettable.

Mon May 09, 2011 9:14 pm
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