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Germany, 1992 (MIFF 1993, Documentaries)

Director: Werner Herzog

Lessons of Darkness marks a welcome return to form for German director Werner Herzog, once a regularly seen figure on the festival circuit, now noted mainly for his absence. After a decade of large-scale international features, Herzog returns to the intimate and distinctively personal style of his earliest works, to essay a recurring theme of his career — the instinctive self-destructiveness of humankind and modern civilisation's inexorable lurch towards chaos.

Within the conceit of a science-fiction movie, Herzog visits another planet in which life has been wiped out by cataclysmic fires and destruction. The setting is in fact the deserts of Kuwait in the aftermath of the Gulf War, where burning oilwells block the sun's rays and spewing fountains of crude oil have created solid-black craters on the sandy terrain. Viewed mainly from the air, the shots of 'this uninhabitable planet' are as awesome as they are grandiose, evoking both the poetry of sci-fi and the accuracy of a clinical observation.

Herzog eschews the standard conventions (and cliches) of journalistic enquiry, and limits himself to only two 'live' interviews - both of which poignantly suggest the inadequacy of language for the victims of terror. Punctuated by intertitles, sparse commentary (spoken by Herzog) and an occasionally portentous overlay of music (Mahler, Verdi and predictably, Wagner), the strength of Lessons of Darkness resides in its conception and seamless editing of image and music. Here, Herzog's existentialist quest finds the ideal subject, and execution.

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Lessons of Darkness

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