Resource and Environmental Degradation: LESSONS OF DARKNESS (Herzog, 1992)

Disclaimer: This is a continuation of a collection of my thoughts for a personal film portfolio; ideas deriving from Nadia Bozac’s, The Cinematic Footprint (2012): ‘Introduction’ and Ch. 2 ‘Resource’.

In Lessons of Darkness, Herzog’s genre-bending strategies and unconventional approach to cinema separates his documentary from the conventional; merging – as Bozac writes – nonfiction and fiction, the real world with the imaginary, to capture a sense of truthfulness that is only obtainable when the bounds of representational accuracy are exceeded. By breaking down specific contextual barriers, Herzog encourages his documentary to invoke an extended exploration into war and resource conflict, and the horrific consequences of this on humans and the land.

By refusing to narrow itself down to the context of 1991 politics (but still exploiting the spectacle of Kuwait’s oil spills and burning wells), Herzog’s science fictional landscape situates it as a futuristic environmental war; the after-effects of what surface after humans have left, conflict has ended, and the environment has now been left degraded.

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Through the diegetic music, the operatic music dramatises the scale of furnaces and ironically conveys the “triumph” of human destruction at the consequence of wealth and greed. Herzog is also consciously abstract – through this science-fiction lens, he offers little to no context, alienating objects as an explanation for this post-apocalyptic reality. By blurring fiction with fact, Herzog self-consciously acknowledges the inability for documentary to truly represent objective fact; instead embracing its flaws through a fictionalised interpretation to uncover a larger and deeper truth.

To separate himself from other modern documentaries, Herzog avoids new media technology – which aim to create urgent, spectacular and “present-tense” liveness. Instead, he embraces the analog through shooting on a 16mm film camera, reducing many shots to single-shot shots. Here, he interrogates the scope that a single camera has to examine the wasted terrain and aftermaths of an oil war on its ecosystem – refuting the idea that multi-cameras are needed to properly capture authenticity.

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His desire for simplicity and rigidity afforded by the analog format means he relies on a stationary camera and minimal editing – avoiding any excess cuts, freeze-frames, zooms and studio shoots. Instead, he works with what Bozac calls a “vulturous patience”, shown through the use of slow pans and aerial helicopter shots, which work to let the havoc of the landscape speak for itself. This patience is accompanied by a loss of words – where the sonorous voiceover of Herzog is sparsely used to let the land speak for itself. Lessons of Darkness is void of any sort of political commentary, relinquishing it from skewed manipulation that film is subject to. But whilst the environment no longer depicts humanity living on it, the scars that impact the innocent are emphasised. The silent child in his mother’s arms, whose inability to speak after witnessing the murder of his father, epitomizes the hidden after-effects of warfare upon both its people and the land.

In addition, transforming the casualty of combat from the human being to the natural environment – Herzog reduces other human life forms to what Bozac describes as “nothing less than extraterrestrial beings”. With the final closing sequence in Lessons of Darkness featuring extinguished oil fires being indulgently reignited from the display of waste and wealth, this horrific representation of humanity’s greedy appetite for oil, and the delight in their palpable desperation for it has led to the burnt land and human misery. Herzog thus undermines the war by challenging the audiences to remember the power of such fires in burning, wasting and polluting the atmosphere. He suggests for a new mode of cinema to tackle such theoretical engagement; self-reflexively using the oil-reflection as cinema’s self-reflection – demanding a reevaluation about cinema’s dependency on war, and how war is dependent on the oil it fights for.

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