Notes on Short Film

Lengthy diatribe on brief cinematic experience.

Lessons of Darkness (1992)

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When your short film is garnering comparisons to Dante’s Inferno, you must be doing something right.

Our friend Werner Herzog’s chilling fifty-minute film uses real footage of the burning oil fields in Kuwait combined with sparse interviews and an uncomfortably detached voice-over to create a post-apocalyptic world out of reality. He splits the footage up into thirteen chapters that suggest a war on a cataclysmic scale. The film teeters off the cliff of documentary and falls into morose science fiction. Here is a fantastically succinct analysis written by Jeremy Heilman on

The ability of these images and juxtapositions to create awe is in no way reduced by the film’s basis in reality, perhaps because Herzog has always shaped the physical world to suit his storytelling needs, even in his fictional films. His tendency to find resonant metaphor in the world’s oddities is one of the prime elements of his genius, and by showing the scorched earth of Kuwaiti oil fields, he presents an almost literal, and unshakable, hell on earth.

The cinematography consists of mostly aerial shots, slowly moving through the barren wasteland humans themselves have destroyed. Fires rage, dotting the landscape almost like stars in the sky, and we see firemen working to put them out but we are removed from them. The scariest visual in the entire film, for me, were the lakes of oil reflecting the sky, acting so much like water. When we see them begin to boil, we know Herzog has brought us to hell.

Oil is so deceiving, so ugly and yet so close to being beautiful. Herzog plays with these illusions very carefully, as oil itself becomes evil, deceiving our eyes as it masks for water and blood. – Beyond the Valley of the Cinephiles


Written by Alisa Hathaway

March 14, 2011 at 10:11 am

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