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Lessons of Darkness (1992)
"Lektionen in Finsternis" (original title)

Not Rated  |   |  Documentary, War  |  26 October 2002 (Hong Kong)
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Ratings: 8.2/10 from 3,231 users  
Reviews: 26 user | 36 critic

This film shows the disaster of the Kuwaitian oil fields in flames, with few interviews and no explanatory narration. Hell itself is presented in such beautiful sights and music that one has to be fascinated by it.



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This film shows the disaster of the Kuwaitian oil fields in flames, with few interviews and no explanatory narration. Hell itself is presented in such beautiful sights and music that one has to be fascinated by it.

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Documentary | War


Not Rated | See all certifications »



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Release Date:

26 October 2002 (Hong Kong)  »

Also Known As:

Lessons of Darkness  »

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1.78 : 1
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Did You Know?


Director Werner Herzog says he prefers to think of this as a science fiction film, not a documentary. See more »


In an aerial shot, the shadow of the camera's helicopter is visible (about 10 minutes, 8 seconds into the film). See more »


Narrator: Two figures are approaching an oil well. One of them holds a lighted torch. What are they up to? Are they going to rekindle the blaze? Is life without fire become unbearable for them?... Others, seized by madness, follow suit. Now they are content. Now there is something to extinguish again.
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not quite science fiction, not quite documentary- science-reality?
26 January 2007 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

While Werner Herzog has stated that he looks at his 1992 film Lessons of Darkness as a work of science fiction, it shouldn't be discounted as a documentary either. But unlike the recent Wild Blue Yonder, where Herzog made a true science fiction documentary, this time the line is further blurred by making everything involving humans ambiguous as to their connections with their surroundings. Despite the locations being discernible as to where it's at, and the two interviews being indicative of where the people are possibly from, he keeps his 54 minute plunge into the Kuwait oil fields a primarily visual trip. It sometimes even felt like someone had decided to do a documentary on some civilization in the future in some obscure sci-fi novel (or, for a moment, like some wayward planet in the Dune universe). It's best then, as Herzog suggests, to take one out of context of the period, even if seeing the green-screen images (however brief) of the war conjures up immediate associations. If looking at this without the associations of the Iraq war part 1 or the Kuwait connection in it all with oil however (as with Wild Blue Yonder not associating that its 'just' NASA and underwater photography), it fills one with an immense wonder at what can be captured by a lens not bound by conventions.

But amid the freedom that Herzog decides to use with his resources, he ends up striking his most visually compelling treatise on destruction to date. It's like he decided to take certain cues from Kubrick via 2001, and from just general nature documentaries, in order to capture the sort of alien aspect to this all. Because the act of setting these oil fields, which were left in a state of disrepair following said "fictional" war, is like facing nature off on a course against nature (fire on oil, then water on fire). There's also the element of industry that finds this way in this mix, especially because of the presence of human beings in this mix. Herzog, in avant-garde fashion (ala Dieter and Yonder) sections off the scenes with Roman numerals, and in theme and tone it does work (e.g. a part meant for showing the machines trudging around is labeled as being part of 'dinosaurs', or when the people set the oil on fire and the others are "mad" in coming in on it). And eventually what starts out as just simple, yet spatially complex, aerial takes on the tattered fields, turns into an act of seeing ruin and something that would seem incredible in an objective frame of reference.

But that doesn't mean Herzog limits it completely to total dialog-less landscapes (which, as Herzog has said in the past, he likes to think in grandiose terms he "directs") of fire and obtuse figures fanning and producing the flames. He also gets two interviews with women who were around when the war was there- one who is given no words for what she says except that her husband was killed, another who had a child with her and who is now traumatized- and somehow this too works even out of context. I'm sure that if Herzog had wanted to, even in limited time and circumstances he was in, he could be able to work some political stance in the proceedings. His decision to keep politics or anything of the immediate recognizable in concrete terms is a wise one. Not that there isn't something concrete to seeing destruction of this magnitude. But there's an abstract quality to all of this after a while that makes it all the more real in nature, while still keeping to a control of the subject matter into something that looks out of this world, ethereal, and somehow unnatural while still being about nature all the same (hence science-reality).

It's almost too arty for its own good in a small way, with Herzog's inter-titles and ultra-somber voice-over becoming like gravestones marking the sections of one set of madness to another. But there's also a daring here that is totally unshakable too, and from a point of view of cinematography it actually goes on par (if not occasionally seems to top) what Kubrick did in 2001 or what Lynch could've done in Dune, which is that a filmmaker uses places and objects that are of this world, but then taking the audience to a place that is also assuredly not so. It adds a level of mental discomfort, but then that's likely a big part of the point- seeing the oil burned by order of a government that's been on the news we watch every night is one thing (or rather was), but it's another to suddenly take it in another light, where in the realm of science-fiction it asks the viewer to raise questions via abstractions one might forget when taking it as complete truth. It's a hybrid film that you'd never see this in a cineplex next to the big-bang sci-fi action fare, but then most probably wouldn't want to.

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