Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Lessons of Darkness or: One Way to Explore Disaster

As I read and watched the news yesterday, following the coverage of everything that is going on along the US-Mexico border, I was reminded of a film I saw twenty-six years ago - Werner Herzog's Lessons of Darkness.  About 50 minutes long, it's one of his essayistic documentary-like films, and though it has nothing to do with immigration or Mexico or anything remotely related to what is happening now, I thought about it because of the approach it takes, that Herzog takes, to disastrous events.  

For those who haven't seen it, I'll give a brief description:

Lessons of Darkness, released in 1992, is a film that shows the burning oil fields of Kuwait after the Gulf War ended.  This is after the Iraqi forces, retreating from Kuwait after months of bombardment from the US and Coalition forces, had set fire to several hundred Kuwaiti oil wells.  In the middle of the desert, these fires raged from January 1991 until the final burning well was capped in November 1991.  Over that time, the environmental damage caused by the fires, the smoke, and the spewing oil was horrendous.

That's what happened.  Those are the bare facts.  And for the entire film, Herzog uses actual footage of the fires and the men on the ground fighting the fires, trying to contain them and put them out.  But instead of making a film that approached the fires in a frontal way, laying out the events and the politics of the time, and the participants whose actions led to the ravaging conflagrations, Herzog goes abstract.  He does not have a standard documentary narrator telling you what is going on.  There are no interviews.  What he does is create a film, mainly through images set to music, that gives the viewer no historical context for the fires.  No country or location is ever mentioned, no year, nothing about why these fires we see have started.  Through the sparse narration, which is delivered by Herzog (who else?), we learn that we are seeing "a planet in our solar system, wide mountain ranges, clouds, the land shrouded in mist." When we see shots of the men, in their protective gear, who are fighting the fires, the narrator says, "The first creature we encountered tried to communicate something to us." And we see a man, who is engaged in dealing with a burning oil well, making what are perfectly reasonable gestures to other firefighters as they go about their work.  We soon understand that we are viewing these images from the perspective of an alien who has no knowledge of the background behind the footage depicted.  Images which, though upsetting, probably became familiar to us through constant news coverage, suddenly become remarkably strange.  Unmoored from your typical bearings as you watch, you contemplate the images with a fresh eye and are prompted to reflect on the entire spectacle, and what led up to it, in ways you might not have before.  

Herzog was explicit about his aims.  In his book, Herzog on Herzog, he says, "the film has not a single frame that can be recognized as our planet earth, and yet we know it must have been shot here."  We live, as we all know, in a media-saturated age, and Herzog's goal, as he put it, even when exploring a ripped from the headlines news event, was to "penetrate deeper than CNN ever could."

As I say, I thought about this film, and how it handles horror and tragedy, while being saturated myself in the images and sounds of what's going on at the US-Mexico border.  On the surface, there's nothing at all to link Kuwait in 1991 with the border area activities now.  Two different times, two different issues.  But the idea of how to grapple, creatively, with maddening events that are covered and analyzed and discussed to death is one I spend time thinking about, and Herzog's example never leaves me.  Everyone tackles the current moment in the way he or she sees fit, but not everything has to be approached head-on, as it were.  This seems particularly worth remembering in the age of social media, when people rant on and on about the obvious and can tire you to the point of exhaustion even when you agree with them.  

That's not to say that everyone likes what you might call distortion.  Anything other than what people label "realism", and some people get upset.  When Lessons of Darkness came out, it met its share of anger and criticism. "You don't aestheticize war," Herzog was essentially told.  And all that distance and irony: "Why would you make something like that?" 

"Why not?" came Herzog's essential answer.  He wanted to document, for all time, what happened.  And if he was trivializing war, or aetheticizing war, then so did Goya and Hieronymous Bosch when they depicted human beings not exactly at their best.

Twenty four hours a day of news, of images, of opinion, of commentary bombarding you everywhere you go. The challenge of how to probe deeper than CNN, or Facebook, or any other news or social media outlet you can think of, remains difficult.  I like to think of what Herzog did in Lessons of Darkness as one example of what's possible when exploring what can only be called yet another calamity.

No comments: