Lessons of Darkness

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Lessons of Darkness
"Has life without fire become unbearable for them?"
Directed byWerner Herzog
Written byWerner Herzog
Produced byPaul Berriff
Werner Herzog
Lucki Stipetić
Narrated byWerner Herzog
CinematographySimon Werry
Paul Berriff
Rainer Klausmann
Edited byRainer Standke
Distributed byWerner Herzog Filmproduktion
Release date
  • 1992 (1992)
Running time
50 minutes
United Kingdom

Lessons of Darkness (German: Lektionen in Finsternis) is a 1992 documentary film directed by Werner Herzog. The film is an exploration of the ravaged oil fields of post-Gulf War Kuwait, decontextualized and characterized in such a way as to emphasize the terrain's cataclysmic strangeness.[1] An effective companion to his earlier film Fata Morgana, Herzog again perceives the desert as a landscape with its voice.[2]

A co-production with Paul Berriff, the film was financed by the television studios Canal+ and Première.[3]


The film is a meditation on catastrophe, contextualized through the literary modes of religion and science fiction.[4] It begins with a quotation, attributed to Blaise Pascal: "The collapse of the stellar universe will occur – like creation – in grandiose splendor." This attribution is apocryphal, as the text was written by Herzog for the film and chosen, like the music, to give the film a certain mood.[5] The prologue of the quotation is followed by thirteen sections, denoted by numbered title cards: "A Capital City", "The War", "After the Battle", "Finds from Torture Chambers", "Satan's National Park", "Childhood", "And a Smoke Arose like a Smoke from a Furnace", "A Pilgrimage", "Dinosaurs on the Go", "Protuberances", "The Drying Up of the Source", "Life Without the Fire" and "I am so tired of sighing; Lord, let it be night".[6]

Mostly devoid of commentary, the imagery concentrates on the aftermath of the first Gulf War – specifically on the Kuwaiti oil fires, although no relevant political or geographical information is mentioned.[5] Herzog intended to alienate the audience from images to which they had become inured from saturated news coverage, and thereby to "penetrate deeper than CNN ever could".[2] Herzog uses a telephoto lens,[4] truck-mounted shots as in Fata Morgana, static shots of the workers near the oil fires, and many helicopter shots of the bleak landscape.[2] By avoiding establishing shots, Herzog heightens the apocalyptic effect of depicting the devastated landscape.[4] Herzog remarked that "the film has not a single frame that can be recognised as our planet, and yet we know it must have been shot here".[7]

Herzog's sparse commentary interprets the imagery out of its documentary context, and into a fiction: the opening narration begins "A planet in our solar system / wide mountain ranges, clouds, the land shrouded in mist".[6] The narrative stance is detached, bemused; Herzog makes no effort to explain the actual causes of the catastrophic scenes, but interprets them in epic terms with vaunting rhetoric to accompany the Wagnerian score.[8] The workers are described as "creatures" whose behaviour is motivated by madness and a desire to perpetuate the damage that they are witnessing.[9] A climactic scene involves the workers, shortly after succeeding in stopping the fires, re-igniting the flow of oil.[10] The narration asks, "Has life without fire become unbearable for them?"[9]


Lessons of Darkness won "Grand Prix" at the Melbourne International Film Festival. At the close of its screening at the Berlin Film Festival, the audience reacted furiously to the film, rising to castigate Herzog with accusations that he had aestheticised the horror of the war. The director waved his hands fiercely and protested "You're all wrong! You're all wrong!", and later maintained Hieronymous Bosch and Goya had done likewise in their art.[11][12]

The Los Angeles Times' end of year review for 1992 recognized the film as "the year's most memorable documentary", describing it as "Herzog's apocalyptic, ultimately ironic view of the Gulf War".[13] Critic Janet Maslin remarked that the director "uses his gift for eloquent abstraction to create sobering, obscenely beautiful images of a natural world that has run amok";[1] her colleague J. Hoberman called it "the culmination of Mr. Herzog's romantic doomsday worldview".[4] Academic Rachel June Torbett hailed Lessons of Darkness as both "extraordinarily beautiful" and "deeply ambiguous", interpreting the decontextualization of the geopolitical background as an avoidance which meant that the intent of the work lacked clarity.[12]

The technique of re-contextualizing documentary footage was also used in Herzog's later film The Wild Blue Yonder.


The sources of music used in the film were classical, and predominantly theatrical:[3]

Scene Music Composer
(Prelude) Das Rheingold (Overture) Richard Wagner
The Capital City

The War

Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46 (Death of Aase) Edvard Grieg
After the Battle Parsifal (Overture) Richard Wagner
Finds from Torture Chambers Sonata for Two Violins, op. 56 (Andante cantabile) Sergei Prokofiev
Satan's National Park Stabat Mater (starts from vocal entrance) Arvo Pärt
And a Smoke Arose like a Smoke from a Furnace Siegfried's death and Funeral march (Götterdämmerung) Richard Wagner
Dinosaurs on the Go Messa da Requiem – Recordare Giuseppe Verdi
The Drying Up of the Source Notturno op. 148 Franz Schubert
Life Without the Fire

I am so tired of sighing; Lord, let it be night

Symphony No. 2, (Urlicht) Gustav Mahler


  1. ^ a b Maslin, Janet (25 October 1995). "Werner Herzog's Vision of a World Gone Amok". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 October 2010.
  2. ^ a b c Prager, Brad (2010). "Landscape of the Mind: The Indifferent Earth in Werner Herzog's Films". In Harper, Graeme; Rayner, Jonathan (eds.). Cinema and landscape. Bristol/Chicago: Intellect. p. 97. ISBN 978-1-84150-309-7. OCLC 457149221.
  3. ^ a b Hillman, Roger (2005). "The great eclecticism of the filmmaker Werner Herzog". Unsettling Scores. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 147–149. ISBN 0-253-34537-5. OCLC 56324689.
  4. ^ a b c d Hoberman, J. (8 May 2005). "Werner Herzog's New Direction". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 October 2010.
  5. ^ a b Herzog 2002, pp. 242–243
  6. ^ a b MacDonald, Scott (2001). The garden in the machine : a field guide to independent films about place. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. pp. 324–5. ISBN 0-520-22737-9. OCLC 46935868.
  7. ^ Herzog 2002, p. 248
  8. ^ Ventura, Elbert. "Lektionen in Finsternis". allmovie.com (All Media Guide). Retrieved 4 November 2010.
  9. ^ a b Herzog 2002[page needed]
  10. ^ For an explanation of this action, see section "Safety and Environmental Concerns" at "How Does Blowout Control Work?". Rigzone. Retrieved 23 September 2016.
  11. ^ Beier, Lars-Olav (11 February 2010). "Werner Herzog's German Comeback: Cinema Legend Heads Berlinale Jury". Spiegel Online (SPIEGEL-Verlag). Retrieved 4 November 2010.
  12. ^ a b Torbett, Rachel June (2009). "The quick and the flat : Walter Benjamin, Werner Herzog". In Dalle Pezze, Barbara; Salzani, Carlo (eds.). Essays on boredom and modernity. Critical studies, v.31. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi. p. 158. ISBN 978-90-420-2566-0. OCLC 319212382.
  13. ^ Koehler, Robert (2 January 1993). "'92 Year in Review". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 4 November 2010.


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