27 August 2009

Herzog's Lessons of darkness

I've just watched Herzog's Lessons of darkness. I've only seen it once before, and it bears repeated viewing. I want a copy of my own. It is one of the best documentaries ever, exemplifying Herzog's idea of the ecstatic truth.

It starts with a quote, allegedly from Pascal: 'The collapse of the stellar universe will occur – like creation – in grandiose splendour.' The quote was actually written by Herzog.

Then, to shots of an alien-seeming landscape, Herzog's voiceover: 'A planet in our solar system. Wide mountain ranges, clouds, the land shrouded in mist. The first creature we encountered tried to communicate something to us.' The creature is a fireman in front of one of the fires in the oil wells after the first Gulf War.

Kuwait and the war are never identified. Given this subject matter, most people would use it for petty political point-scoring, but not Herzog, oh no. It's all about the 'grandiose splendour' of a brutalised landscape, and the folly and madness of humanity. And it is grandiosely splendid. Giant machines become dinosaurs. The fires of the oil wells the fires of hell.

At the end, after a long sequence showing a fire being put out and the well capped, 'Two figures are approaching an oil well. One of them holds a lighted torch. What are they up to? Are they going to rekindle the blaze? [The torch is thrown into the oil, which reignites.] Has life without fire become unbearable for them? Others, seized by madness, follow suit. [Another torch is thrown into another well.] Now they are content. Now there is something to extinguish again.'

Now for a nice cigarette and then Fata Morgana.

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