Shots From the Canon #14: ‘Lessons of Darkness’ (Werner Herzog, 1992)


Every week or so, filmmaker and writer Robert Greene will attempt to push for a new canon of cinematic nonfiction.

Before Grizzly Man gave him a legitimate documentary hit, before his own voice became iconic to the point of (near) self-parody and before his “ecstatic truth” construct became a ubiquitous and useful entry point for cineastes of all stripes to understand nonfiction films that push past journalistic ideas of “truth,” Werner Herzog consistently made films that defied categorization and triumphantly broke boundaries. Among his most mesmerizing works is the 1971 experimental study of mirages, Fata Morgana, a film that reads landscapes and observations like many of his fiction masterpieces read faces and grand gestures. But it is his 1992 film Lessons of Darkness, a kind of aesthetic sequel to Fata Morgana, which we nominate today for the new canon of cinematic nonfiction.

Upon its release, Lessons of Darkness was criticized in many circles for its daring and grandiose repurposing of footage shot of a battered Kuwait just after the Gulf War. Using truly breathtaking 16mm images (many of them aerial shots), a sweeping orchestral score (Mahler, for example) and sparse but heavily biblical voice over, Herzog creates an apocalyptic opera of observation on war, environmental calamity and absurd human folly. After the film’s screening at the Berlin Film Festival, Herzog reportedly screamed, “you’re all wrong!” to a booing crowd. Some viewers bristled at the lack of explanation, like when a woman explains a torture situation but isn’t subtitled, creating a strangely distanced and disturbing portrait, and accused Herzog of aestheticizing war.

Of course within the sci-fi fantasy created by the film, where firefighters are aliens and our own world a strange, distant planet, deeper (yes, ecstatic) truths can be discovered. Through the wildly romantic and ambitious convergence of fiction and nonfiction, the sheer insanity of perpetual political conflict and misuse of resources becomes not a talking point, but a heartbreaking and profoundly unsettling reality. Just like how Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread upended the voice-of-god narrator of empty and deceptively racist ethnography before it even became the dominant mode, Herzog here obliterates the currently popular issuementary genre before it really even existed.

The thirteen chapters of Lessons of Darkness tell the story of a once-thriving city, destroyed by war, where man-made volcanoes burn and the landscape is overrun by madness. Aliens spend all their time squelching the fires, only to restart them. “Now they are content,” Herzog tells us, “Now there is something to extinguish again.” The black storms of smoke circle the planet. Grotesquely beautiful images are of a world destroying itself in splendor. Inter-titles like “And a Smoke Arose like a Smoke from a Furnace” escalate the majestic, terrifying tension. Fire, water, bodies, landscape. There is no foundation to send money to at the end of the film. There is no sobering reportage. There is only absurdity, spirituality and cinema. The “lesson” here is to create challenging art and shake the world until it understands.

You can buy the Lessons of Darkness/Fata Morgana DVD pack from Amazon.

Past Nominees For the New Canon of Nonfiction Cinema:

#1 News From Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977)

#2 The Store (Frederick Wiseman, 1983)

#3 Below Sea Level (Gianfranco Rosi, 2008)

#4 Tokyo Olympiad (Kon Ichikawa, 1965)

#5 The Century of the Self (Adam Curtis, 2005)

#6 Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974)

#7 The Battle of Chile (Patricio Guzmán, 1973–1979)

#8 How To Live in the German Federal Republic (Harun Farocki, 1990)

#9 Man of Aran (Robert J. Flaherty, 1934)

#10 The Belovs (Victor Kossakovsky, 1994)

#11 The ‘Koker’ Trilogy (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987–1994)

#12 Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, 1992)

#13 Streetwise (Martin Bell, 1984)