On the heels of Werner Herzog’s late 2009 twofer of The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (with its sustained tone of mournful craziness, the more impressive film), MoMA tucks the filmmaker’s 1992 curio Lessons of Darkness into a series (see also) commemorating the last 40 years of Film Forum documentary premieres. (The film screens this Saturday night and Monday afternoon.) Of course, the documentary label is more than a little problematic when applied to any of Herzog’s ostensibly nonfiction films, and perhaps especially this 50-plus-minute pocket epic, which has over the years appeared both on the Discovery Channel and a wall at the New Museum (as part of 2008’s After Nature). The images, mostly breathtaking-horrifying aerial shots of an alternately lunar and conflagrant post-Gulf War Kuwaiti landscape, are at least strictly documentary; the formal framework, however—including various pieces of classical music; XIII portentously titled chapters; and a Herzog voiceover filled with vague destruction-myth proclamations (“And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell”)—suggests post-apocalyptic fiction.
Legend has it that during filming Herzog was kicked out of Kuwait by officials who quickly became leery of his project. The amount of slow motion and the paucity of interview subjects (two women who suffered at the hands of retreating Iraqi troops) suggest the filmmaker was not in the country long, but the immediacy of his dispatch, the awful scale of the oil fires and their sky-shrouding plumes of dark smoke, calls attention away from the film’s sometimes seemingly haphazard assembly. In Herzog’s corpus, Lessons of Darkness is often grouped with Fata Morgana (1971) and The Wild Blue Yonder (2005), a loose trilogy of so-called sci-fi documentaries, but as Lessons‘ lifeless waste panoramas give way to closer-in shots of men struggling to contain the raging fires with water and dynamite, more exalted filmic company comes to mind. Though there is no hubristic individual madness among these workers, and the voiceover situates their toiling as an eternal cycle apart from nature, their direct contending with hellfire nonetheless evokes the deranged expeditions of astonishing dimension central to Herzog’s finest collaborations with Klaus Kinski, Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Lessons of Darkness does not stand shoulder to shoulder with those two films, but its oil-drenched landscapes are perhaps more haunting than anything in Herzog outside of his mid-70s heyday.