Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Life Without Fire

We are poised high in the air, soaring over desert landscapes stained with oil, circling giant columns of fire. Our vision is filled with black smoke and searing light; our ears are flooded with Wagner. This can only be Herzog's world. With Lessons of Darkness, a film that Herzog assembled in 1991 from postwar footage of oil fires in Kuwait, there are no moments of punditry, no easy answers. Herzog's film is concerned with more than the Gulf War; it plunges us right into the abyss.

The film's soundtrack is composed of pieces by Wagner, Mahler, Verdi, and others. Herzog supplies sparse narration, but this is a film driven by images, like Godfrey Reggio's Quatsi trilogy. Unlike Reggio, Herzog is not primarily concerned with preaching to the choir; when he appeared at Images earlier this year, he took strong exception to his frequently being labeled a "naturalist." From the beginning, Herzog denies us specific relation to Desert Storm or Middle Eastern conflicts in general - his narration informs us that we are on a planet somewhere in our solar system. As the camera swoops over cityscapes, the narration states that nobody below is yet aware of the destruction to come. In fact, this footage was shot long after the end of the war; however, it would be a mistake to assume that Herzog is up to run-of-the-mill bullshittery. Lessons of Darkness takes a specific conflict and, rather than being limited to a comment on that conflict, is elevated to the level of poetic allegory. There are no answers here, but this is not to suggest that Herzog is being utterly nihilistic; rather, he has opted to observe and reflect, raising questions instead of placating us with reassuring "War is hell" soundbites. It is a film about the end of all things, about the ways in which we willingly plunge into the void.

There is also a paradox here. Horrific as these images of destruction can be, they are also exhilarating and beautiful. Herzog seems to realize this; he begins the film with a quote (falsely attributed, he cheerfully has admitted, to Pascal) stating that the end of the world, like the beginning, is infused with "glorious splendor." This is reflected towards the end, when two firefighters ignite previously extinguished wells just so they can put them out again - Herzog questions this "madness," suggesting that for the men, perhaps life without fire is unbearable. But he also gives us two scenes that force us to reconsider our innate attraction to spectacle. One woman has struggled to speak since soldiers killed her two sons; another woman's young son has not spoken since a soldier stomped on his head. The nationalities of the soldiers are never specified, nor are they particularly relevant; destruction is a human problem, not an American or Iraqi one. It is unclear whether these scenes are literally documentary or fiction, and as a result, we are forced to draw our own conclusion about their truth (Herzog has his own ideas about truth, famously illustrated in his Minnesota Declaration).

It is also worth noting that for some, Herzog's use of long (in running time, not focal length) shots and repetitive imagery grows wearysome or boring. Lessons of Darkness will do nothing to change that opinion - it's a challenging film, one that requires patience and attention, but can be very rewarding, both intellectually and emotionally. It's worth noting how many run-of-the-mill films use the kind of epic exteriors Herzog is preoccupied with as a sort of garnish. Think of how many films begin with the camera swooping over a coastline or flying over mountain ranges for no other reason than to feign weight and style. We are accustomed to experiencing the world around us as a backdrop for our mundane little soap operas, mostly ignoring the greater story that is playing out all around us. Films like Lessons of Darkness force us to adjust our vision; we may not like what we see, but it would be a sin to turn away.

No comments: