Monday, October 02, 2006

Lessons of Darkness (1992)

Werner Herzog's forceful film about the aftermath of the first war in Iraq opens with Herzog narrating, "The first creature we encountered tried to communicate something to us" (in reference to a hazmat-suited cleanup worker waving the camera crew away from the site of a burning oil well), and it closes with a quote from Blaine Pascal that reads, "The collapse of the stellar universe will occur like creation -- in grandiose splendor." These two bookends say everything about Herzog's approach to this extraordinary project. At once horrifying and beautiful, alien and recognizable, Lessons of Darkness is a wondrous and ruinous feat of filmmaking. Rather than attempt to make sense of the devastation amidst the flaming oil wells of Kuwait, Herzog admits that the situation is senseless beyond verbal expression (literally, in the scene where he profiles the Kuwaiti woman who has lost her voice) and focuses on potent imagery, concentrating mainly on the wells. The fire and smoke that erupts constantly from the wells have a sort of cruel poetry to them, as the clouds form into strangely lovely shapes that almost distract from the horrific reality of what they represent. The oil itself shows up a lot as well; whether falling from the sky as a virulent black rain, bubbling in a lake or leeching into the body of a child, causing him to cry tears of obsidian, the region's oil infects and corrupts everything it sees. (Implicit social critique or just accident of inferrence?) This is among the most visually stunning and emotionally disruptive films I've yet seen. It's no accident that Herzog quotes Revelations in his narration midfilm -- through his documentary-as-tone-poem approach, Herzog has done the sci-fi genre one better. He's fashioned a film that feels genuinely apocalyptic.

Grade: A


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5:30 PM  

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