Academic journal article CineAction

Apocalypse Then: Lessons of Darkness Re-Visited

Academic journal article CineAction

Apocalypse Then: Lessons of Darkness Re-Visited

Article excerpt

"Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species--including man--crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the lessons of darkness continue." (1)

In the most recent publication of his A Biographical Dictionary Of Film, David Thomson curiously goes back on a comment he made in the 1994 edition and remarks of Werner Herzog that: "He is not the ideal documentarian," (2) a statement that logically carries the (implicit) suggestion that Herzog doesn't make 'ideal' documentaries. Given the fact that Thomson fails to construct a convincing framework for such an assertion, never providing a model of who he believes an 'ideal' documentary filmmaker to be (much less what an 'ideal' documentary is), we are left to infer that what is actually meant by this is that Herzog doesn't make orthodox documentaries, and on this point I would whole-heartedly agree. Where I may differ from Mr. Thompson is in my belief that this is a very good thing.

Herzog's documentaries (if they can so be called) are, like many of his fiction films, among the most idiosyncratic and determinedly singular works the cinema has given us in the past thirty years. Lessons Of Darkness, however, may initially appear to be a more conventional, even uninspiring, undertaking. In contrast to works where Herzog has characteristically scoured the planet for small, out of the way stories to tell, finding subjects in everything from ski jumpers (The Great Ecstasy Of Woodcarver Steiner, 1973) to televangelists (God's Angry Man, 1980) by way of the world championship of livestock auctioneers (How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck, 1976), and turned them into typically Herzogian inquiries into the marginal, the eccentric and the dispossessed, a documentary about the effects of the 1991 Gulf war on Kuwait seems to hint at something more generic, much larger and more political. But nothing could be further from the truth.

The quote at the top of this article is from Herzog's confrontational manifesto (of sorts) entitled "The Minnesota Declaration: Truth and fact in documentary cinema." (3) In it, he repeats what has recently been an oft-quoted remark: that cinema verite "Reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants ... there are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth." (4) This statement could point to Herzog's methods on many of his films, discursive or otherwise, but it seems particularly apt in discussing Lessons Of Darkness, for in this documentary perhaps more than any other, Herzog's truth has never appeared so enigmatic: or so tangible.

The particular method of Lessons Of Darkness could, broadly and not un-schematically, be said to be that it begins in abstraction and proceeds, over the course of its fifty-four minutes, to try and find something concrete, the deeper layer of truth. It is not without reason that Herzog has described the film as a work of science-fiction, an interesting observation for a so-called documentary, and one which implicitly seems to cue it in as a companion piece to his 1971 docu-poem Fata Morgana.

In that most remarkable work, originally conceived as a sci-fi film in which an alien report on a doomed planet, Uxmal, is discovered by Humans, Herzog ironically uses a sacred Quiche Indian creation myth against scenes (shot in the Sahara) that starkly capture the fallout of Western colonialism. In a land of detritus, wreckage and fire that strongly pre-figures the apocalyptic mise en scene of Lessons Of Darkness, Fata Morgana offers an increasingly despairing and disillusioned view of mankind as corrupter and polluter of an almost primeval landscape, set in poignant and marked relief only by the native people who wander aimlessly, as though lost, amid the technological flotsam and jetsam that has turned their (our) land into a graveyard. …

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