Fire and Sand Abound in Werner Herzog's "Lessons of Darkness"
Amidst the burning oil fields of Kuwait featured in Werner Herzog’s documentary Lessons of Darkness is a world turned mute: an environment that can no longer speak. Save for the constant musical score, there are almost no other sounds. The image is on mute, and Herzog keeps his narration to a minimum. Of the two interviews in the film, one of them is with a Kuwaiti woman who, after witnessing her children’s torture and murder, lost the ability to speak; the other is with a mother holding her child, who after being stepped on my soldiers spoke only once more to his mother: he told her that he never wanted to learn to speak.
This lack of speech is the central metaphor in the overall dehumanization that Herzog sees displayed in the aftermath of Desert Storm. It is a theme that permeates all aspects of the film in a natural, intrinsic manner. Even Herzog’s photography of the landscape, shooting from a moving helicopter, cannot belie the alien land it has become. It is impassable by even foot. The oil industry first began the land’s transformation; the bombs secured its beyond-this-world sense of ruin. The ignition of the oil, the final act of the Iraqi soldiers, was also the final act of abandonment.
Key, also, is how Herzog does not muddle the apocalyptic poetry of the images with political and historical double-speak. He blames no one and sides no one. The aftermath, the affected landscape, is what concerns Herzog, not the politicians’ justification for destruction. Everything seems to be beyond the scope of words; the human victims will not speak, all the while the land refuses the shut up: the oil keeps burning, keeps raining. It is both a regressive situation, returning the land to the earth, and one decidedly futuristic. The pools of oil reflect not their true self, but the skies above; oil drizzles down from the sky; the air is black with smoke and toxic fumes; and groups of men wearing facemasks and helmets drag in long hoses and heavy machinery. Not one element is in its place.
That Herzog is able to draw ties-that-bind through his historically eclectic body of work, ranging from conquistadors to Kuwait, only confirms his suspicion at the end of Lessons of Darkness: that man cannot live without the fires, and that we will always keep them burning steadily so we have something to extinguish.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.