The introductory Pascal quote regarding the "grandiose splendor" of humanity’s collapse is counterfeit, but the visions Werner Herzog finds to illustrate it are absolute. The apocalypse is unmistakable even if the disbanding Gulf War goes unnamed, the 13-part structure posits Ecclesiastes in the desert from the vantage of the most sublime helicopter shots ever captured. Kuwait City at dawn, "The War" (CNN views in grainy night vision), "afterwards everything was different." Space-engulfing camera sprawls contemplate, mourn, and exalt the ensuing wreckage: Craters, bones, gnarled pipelines stretched by the lenses. And oil. "The oil is treacherous, because it reflects the sky. The oil is trying to disguise itself as water." Other appearances are no less deceiving—abandoned, flat-roofed hangars resemble Aztec pyramids, a crumbled refinery tank suggests a battered ship protruding out of the sand. There’s no mocking irony to the chapter names, "Torture Chambers" is precisely that, the camera passes over the kind of instruments that made Falconetti's Joan of Arc faint. "Satan’s National Park," "A Dinosaur’s Feast," "The Drying Up of the Wells." Wagner for creation and devastation (Das Rheingold, Götterdämmerung), the dynamiting of an offending gush that’s become a column of fire, a flabbergasting shot (cf. Anderson's There Will Be Blood). Speech breaks down in the face of the horrors, the witnesses—a bereft mother, a brutalized boy—can only communicate through their unforgettable faces. By comparison, the American firefighters remain an impersonal mass, just mustaches behind doused visors until one of them spots the camera and smiles like Nanook. What planet is this? In the flaming oil wells, perpetually being extinguished and relit, Herzog locates his perfect visualization of human madness, aliens in their own world, forever unleashing, warring, and reviving foes. "I am so weary of sighing, O Lord, grant that the night cometh." Cinematography by Rainer Klausmann.
--- Fernando F. Croce