‘Lessons of Darkness’ Review: Raining Fire

Posted in The Screening Room by - May 18, 2016

And just when you’ve finally come to the conclusion that it couldn’t get any odder, it does. Such is the life of a Werner Herzog fan; one I have recently embraced. Herzog is known not only as a visionary storyteller but also as a master of documentary film. His filmography is littered with factual stories of the making of his films as well as more dramatic ones such as Lessons of Darkness.

First released in 1992, the film is technically categorized as a science fiction movie because the narrator (Werner Herzog) is an alien pondering on the war-torn landscape beneath him, raging with oil fires and shattered buildings. After the first Gulf War, the Iraqi army retreated from Kuwait, setting fire to the country’s oil fields as they escaped. Herzog describes the scenes as he sees them with minimalist style, speaking only a few lines in the film’s short 54-minute runtime.

To understand Herzog’s extreme inclination to visuals over narration, one needn’t seek any further than this movie. The alien quietly thinks on the desert below him, alive with orange blazes of the fires and the deceptively clear oil – almost like water. Using a helicopter for nearly every shot in the predominantly aerial film, Herzog perfectly captures the pure chaos of fire and the frustratingly unrelenting oil sprouts. For dozens of minutes on end, the viewer is subjected to a multitude of both fascinating and horrifying shots of pure, unaltered combustive power. It’s near impossible to suppress a look of awe while watching the movie; taking in the tornadoes of fire and naturalistic fury roaring hundreds of feet above even the helicopter is a cinematic experience only Herzog could manage. As Herzog would say, the images speak for themselves.

In addition to filming the flames, Herzog shows the men who fight them. Clad in simple suits not regulated to fight a house fire, they work diligently to subdue the screaming incendiary beasts. Despite the noise, smoke, soot and ash all around they find the time to smile after finally getting a valve over the fountain of oil.

Not a few miles away, Herzog interviews women who recount the crimes and offenses of the Iraqi soldiers. One mother describes the soldiers’ beating of her son, almost crushing his skull and causing him never to speak again. As she tells the story in gruesome detail, she is acting as a rock against leaves. Firm and decidedly steadfast; after finishing, she looks into the camera – quiet and unwavering. Her son reaches up to touch her nose, and she pushes his fidgeting hands aside as she holds him.

The silence is deafening.

Though the alien is mostly quiet, when he speaks he tries his best to interpret what’s happening. He questions why the men fight the fire with such deplorable unsafe equipment, why the oil looks like water under the bright blue sky, why the men relight the oil fountains once they’ve fought the flames off. His innocent curiosity is the window for our eyes; the viewers who have never seen war, never fought a fire as tall as a skyscraper, never had to watch your son be beaten and broken time after time to men who invaded your home and laid waste to your country. We are the fortunate few, the dwindling percent of those safe from conflict and chaos of this scale. Our burden is the one we bear in seeing that senseless violence, those mountains of ash and cinder, the charred skeletons of a thousand innocent families. Our burden is not the heaviest, but it is important. Our burden is to look at the death and destruction and choose to give help, not turn the screen off in hopes of a tomorrow that will never come. It’s up to us to fuel the world we hope one day that not only the aliens be proud of, but one we’re proud of too.

Final Verdict: Watch It

If you’d like to help with relief efforts across the world and help civilians in dire situations like these, please consider donating to the Red Cross.

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When not drowning in school work or ignoring social obligations he enjoys watching movies on just about anything. Currently making his way through the cinema classics he hopes to one day write a novel, but he’ll probably end up playing The Witcher 3 instead.
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