This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 10 is called "Cinéma-vérité Week":
"Cinéma vérité (French: [sinema veʁite]; 'truthful cinema') is a style of documentary filmmaking, invented by Jean Rouch, inspired by Dziga Vertov's theory about Kino-Pravda. It combines improvisation with the use of the camera to unveil truth or highlight subjects hidden behind crude reality. It is sometimes called observational cinema, if understood as pure direct cinema: mainly without a narrator's voice-over. There are subtle, yet important, differences among terms expressing similar concepts. Direct Cinema is largely concerned with the recording of events in which the subject and audience become unaware of the camera's presence: operating within what Bill Nichols, an American historian and theoretician of documentary film, calls the "observational mode", a fly on the wall. Many therefore see a paradox in drawing attention away from the presence of the camera and simultaneously interfering in the reality it registers when attempting to discover a cinematic truth. Cinéma vérité can involve stylized set-ups and the interaction between the filmmaker and the subject, even to the point of provocation. Some argue that the obvious presence of the filmmaker and camera was seen by most cinéma vérité filmmakers as the best way to reveal the truth in cinema. The camera is always acknowledged, for it performs the raw act of filming real objects, people, and events in a confrontational way. The filmmaker's intention was to represent the truth in what he or she was seeing as objectively as possible, freeing people from any deceptions in how those aspects of life were formerly presented to them. From this perspective, the filmmaker should be the catalyst of a situation. Few agree on the meanings of these terms, even the filmmakers whose films are being described."
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Cinéma-vérité film.
OK, let's deal with the Challenge parameters first. I didn't notice that the movies were supposed to be feature length, and Lessons of Darkness is only 54 minutes. But I got it from the above mentioned list of Cinéma-vérité films, so blame them. Also, while even Wikipedia struggles to define cinéma vérité in an exact manner, it's not clear to me that Lessons of Darkness qualifies. According to the IMDB, Herzog "prefers to think of this as a science fiction film, not a documentary."
None of this is particularly relevant, except as a comment on the Challenge.
If you need a genre, Lessons of Darkness is a documentary presented as science fiction. Herzog uses beautiful/ugly visuals to construct Earth as if it were seen from another planet, and he provides no context beyond the suggestion that the movie takes place after a man-made apocalypse, a la Mad Max movies. In fact, it's Kuwait after the Gulf War, and oil is the predominant image. Oil is everywhere ... as Herzog-as-narrator says, "This was once a forest before it was covered with oil. Everything that looks like water is in actuality oil. Ponds and lakes are spread out all over the land. The oil is treacherous because it reflects the sky. The oil is trying to disguise itself as water." Oil is the ugly side of beautiful. Much of the film consists of long aerial shots of the terrain, and they are hypnotic.
This is not a hopeful movie. At times, it seems like Herzog is recreating the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth (one segment is titled "Dinosaurs on the Go"), only now, the dinosaurs are the big machines operated by oil workers. Without context, there is no telling how this apocalypse took place, or why it wouldn't take place again. Herzog finds beauty in the land, but it's hopeless beauty.