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Note: This post may contain spoilers.

Lessons of Darkness (1995) is an hour-long documentary about the devastation in Kuwait’s oil fields. While this documentary could have been straightforward recounting in another maker’s hands, it becomes achingly and horrifyingly meaningful in the hands of Werner Herzog.

Lessons of Darkness consists of 13 parts, and only the first part shows the city before its devastation. Aerial shots reveal a city alive, cars moving along the highway, white headlights approaching, red taillights retreating. The cinematography focuses on nothing specific, but instead offers an overview in the gray twilight. Herzog’s narration, which remains sporadic throughout, warns of the pending doom.

The second part, titled “The War,” features archival footage from CNN with the bombs exploding over the city. This short part sets up the devastation and cleanup occurring in most of the following parts.

This devastation occurs on the human level and on an environmental level. The human level occurs through the two interviews that appear in this film. The first interview is with a mother who watched her sons tortured to death. While she has lost her speech, Herzog still allows her to tell her story through the language she has left. No voiceover or captions translate what she says. The second interview is with a mother and her young son in a section titled “Childhood.” The boy saw his father shot and killed, and he experienced a soldier crushing his head with a boot. He has not spoken since, the events arguably taking away what childhood he had.

The devastation on the environmental level still begins with a perspective from the human level. In a brilliant use of depth of field and framing, a shot shows the remains of human ribs in the foreground and a large plume of smoke in the background. This close-up, however, is the exception as Lessons of Darkness consists primarily of aerial shots of the devastation, the oil spills, and the fires, which seem to go on endlessly.

Clean-up crews battle the fires with water, with explosives, and with heavy equipment. Herzog engages none of the workers and interviews, instead opting to watch as they do their work. He does play with the sound, alternating between on-location sound of roaring fires in some parts and classical music in other parts.

The depths of meaning in this documentary come through and subtlest of ways. The voiceover remains spare but almost poetic, like a fairytale: “Every island fled away, and the mountains were not found.” The cinematography privileges expansive views of the devastation and stillness, but every once in a while offers a startling close-up: the ribs, the torture tools, a toaster. The ebb and swell of music, with operatic voices and brass and drums, overwhelm the sound after long series of silence. And the two interviews remind us of the human price sadly paid.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh is a documentary blogger and mass media professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.