Lessons of Darkness

Werner Herzog's Gulf War 'documentary' sparks debate at the Belfast Photo Festival

During his decades-spanning career, Werner Herzog has proven that he can effortlessly switch genres, from horror to historical drama to documentary. He brings a strong sense of aesthetics to each of his projects.

His Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), for example, remains a fascinating movie. It has some dodgy acting and a script that doesn't always make sense, but also has many scenes of mesmerising beauty, evoking powerful and lasting emotions in the viewer.

And who can forget the stunning opening shot from Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972), with its column of ant-like figures slowly winding its way down a Peruvian mountain, so high up that they are partially obscured by clouds?

Aguirre is a movie about war, but it concentrates on the human aspect and largely skips the historical context. With the closing scene, Herzog makes as big a statement about war and the human condition as any big battlefield scene could have done: the 16th century conquistador, played by Klaus Kinski, ends his search for El Dorado alone on a deteriorating raft beset by monkeys.

Herzog's Lessons of Darkness, his 1992 film about the first Gulf War, shares this impressionistic quality. We see the devastated landscape of Iraq and we see the people inhabiting it, but we hardly learn anything about the political background of the war or of those people.

At its premiere in Cannes, the audience believed that Lessons of Darkness glorified war and booed Herzog. But Herzog is continually misunderstood. What he really has to say with Lessons of Darkness is that though it may be beautiful – from a photographer's point of view – ultimately war is hell.

As in many of his films, Herzog lets the visuals do most of the talking. The stripped-down aesthetics tell a story that bypasses the conscious mind, heading straight for the underbelly. He presents a desolate landscape broken by fountains of fire, a primordial world in which cranes and machines move around like prehistoric animals.

We never see Herzog himself, except for a glimpse of the shadow of his helicopter. Yet, it is his film and his unique sensibility inhabits each frame. Herzog has an infamous commitment to working in often risky situations, shooting in unfeasibly remote locations and collaborating with the unpredictable Klaus Kinski.

Here, Herzog and his crew face the hellish conditions of the burning oil fields, working in fireproof suits and using special helicopters to film. Lessons of Darkness is not just about the Gulf War; it is also about Herzog learning to film in a warzone.

The choices of classical music used in the score are shrewd. Verdi features, but Wagner dominates. Themes from Das Rheingold evoke that opera's story of a war focused on the possession of a treasure. It underlines the mythical qualities of Herzog's film, and isalso thematically apt. Although the treasure fought over here is black, not gold.

Lessons of Darkness is not what people may think of as a 'proper' documentary. It documents, but it doesn't talk about cause and effect and it doesn't interpret the threads of history and politics. Herzog merely uses his visuals aesthetically, abstractly. He doesn't attempt a linear approach, or try to wrestle a coherent story out of incoherent footage.

'The word "documentary" should be handled with care,' Herzog has said, 'because we seem to have a very precise definition of what the word means.' Perhaps Lessons of Darkness is not a documentary in that strict sense of the word, then, but a work of art that helps us to engage with the world around us, drawing from us a fresh response to a subject that is all too easy to cynically disengage from.

The film ends with footage of the fire-fighting crews who are responsible for extinguishing the inferno. Two firemen hang about a geyser of crude oil that gushes into the air. Then one of them tosses a firebrand and the column of oil explodes into flame. It's a portent of the second war to come, but also a symbol of our natural state. 'Perhaps humans just cannot live without fire,' Herzog intones wryly.

Lessons of Darkness was screened at the Ormeau Baths Gallery as part of the Belfast Photo Festival.