Oct 2012

Jacob-Ivan Eidt

Empathy of Sound and Sublimity of Sight:  Music, Image, and the Kantian Sublime in Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness

I.  Introduction

Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1992) is a difficult film to classify.  It has been described as “a documentary about the effects of the 1991 Gulf war” (Bingham 50).  Others see it as a critique of “disaster capitalism” (Simpson 312) and the ecological effects of profit driven warfare.  Nadia Bozak reads it as a cine-essay, which utilizes the reflective ambiguity of the essay form to critique not only war, but vision and visuality itself (20).  When it was first premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 1992, it stirred controversy among the audience and critics alike, who angrily accused Herzog of an authoritarian aestheticizing of the horrors of war (Cronin 245). Herzog himself places the film in a science fiction genre as a way of explaining the alienating effect of the images that he presents (Cronin 248).   The difficulty in describing Lessons of Darkness has a lot to do with the complexity in describing its effect on the viewer.  Herzog combines real footage of actual war devastation, fictional narration and mythical texts to decontextualize and abstract that footage, only then to employ a classical music soundtrack designed to temper these images with a very particular kind of intense subjective empathy.   The result is by no means predictable, as the many reactions to the film attest.  However, one apparent common denominator that emerges with the experience of the film is Herzog’s use of the sublime with music in framing all of these elements.  Indeed, the category of the sublime has often been the starting point for interpreting Herzog’s work and the ultimate aims of his films (Corrigan 17).

In this article I will demonstrate how Herzog has appropriated aspects of the Kantian sublime in order to produce not simple aestheticized images of war but instead images that incite critical reflection on the results of warfare.  As Brad Prager has pointed out about Herzog’s relationship to Romanticism, he appropriates aspects of its aesthetic in order to engage it critically (”Herzog’s Hearts” 29).  The sublime, which Herzog invokes in the form of landscapes in Lessons of Darkness, is indicative of the kind of reflective process that Kant references in his understanding of the sublime, as a sense-experience called into question.  This mirrors Herzog’s main goal in presenting unique landscapes, which is, as Prager formulates it, to “defamiliarize us from our own landscapes in the hope of providing a sensual experience that stands apart from conventional and academic ways of thinking (Landscape 93).  Moreover many of Herzog’s images are coupled with non-diegetic music, which pulls the visual experience into a highly subjective realm exacerbating the ultimate effect of powerlessness in the face of vast destruction.  The feelings of inadequacy, bewilderment, and inability that result from the images are the trigger of the sublime, highlighting its main feature, which is one of simultaneous attraction and repulsion.  It is this ambivalence of feeling that lies at the root of the many diverse reactions to the film’s aesthetic images.

II. Notions of the Sublime

Alan Singer has noted that German Idealism is Herzog’s inescapable cultural origin, delineating the director’s use of the ironic sublime, which, while indebted to romanticism, nonetheless departs dramatically from its precepts (183).  Singer makes clear that it would be a mistake to read the sublime too strictly into Herzog’s films because it would “eclipse history from the screen” (184).  However, in the case of Lessons of Darkness that is exactly the charge that many critics level at the film.  By refusing to name the historical context of the Gulf War images, Herzog is said to render war abstract and metaphysical, allowing the viewer to escape into the beauty of aestheticized destruction as a universal without confronting the ugliness of its particulars (Simpson 312).

One noticeable feature of Singer’s understanding of Herzog’s work is his exclusive application of the ironic sublime to purely fictional feature films.  Lessons of Darkness, as a kind of hybrid documentary, lacks an element central to Singer’s analysis.  According to Singer, “Herzog’s films situate the viewer uncomfortably between the human and the superhuman (the natural sublime) as though the two realms of existence demanded reconciliation” (203).  In Lessons of Darkness, however, the human element is conspicuously absent in an alien world of science-fiction. Or is it?

If we take Singer’s lead and return to Burke and Kant for our understanding of the sublime we can immediately identify the philosophical antecedents for many of Herzog’s images.  The charge of aestheticized destruction implies that Herzog has rendered war and its horrors beautiful, making them intrinsically valuable as objects of aesthetic contemplation, neutralizing any concrete critical reflection.   But as the Burkian and Kantian treatment of aesthetics make clear, the beautiful and the sublime are two very distinct things, producing very different effects in the perceiver and resulting from very different sources.

Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) articulates one of the differences between the beautiful and the sublime in terms of subjective reactions to spatial relations in nature.  For Burke the vastness of nature elicits the sublime, whereas the beautiful is evoked in more diminutive formats:

For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small:  beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when it deviates it often makes a strong deviation:  beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy:  beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive (Burke 124).

This description of the sublime most certainly speaks to the majority of the images that Herzog captures on screen. They are indeed vast, massive, gloomy, and so obscure as to be unidentifiable at times, hence Herzog’s use of the science fiction genre as a way of explaining their ambiguity. As Herzog put it, “the film has not a single frame that can be recognized as our planet (Cronin 248).”

Burke implies that beauty is the result of intentional nurturing in keeping with a certain purpose or adherence to a desired form or outcome, whereas the sublime is the result of a more mysterious and less purposeful force.  Attributes like smooth and polished bring to mind notions of human intention, design, and cultivation, as do descriptions of subtle deviation from geometric perfection, and lack of obscurity.  These imply purpose or intent. The descriptions of the sublime, in contrast, suggest supra-human occurrences that are inspired not by any notion of desired form, but rather by the terror at the obliteration of recognizable form. A certain kind of chaos reigns supreme in the sublime image. Herzog describes the landscapes in Lessons of Darkness as “completely mutilated” (Cronin 249). For Burke beauty inspires pleasure and the sublime terror. In this sense Herzog’s images are certainly sublime in that they defy explanation and are void of design.  Neither did Herzog create the images that he filmed, nor were they created according to rules, forms, or a specific purpose-driven intent other than wanton destruction. The Iraqis followed a scorched earth policy as they retreated from Kuwait, setting oil wells aflame. War may have political, ideological, or financial objectives, but its horrors are rarely ultimate aims in and of themselves. A central ethical question regarding war is whether their ends can ever justify their means. Herzog centers his film on the means. His images inspire a kind of awe in the awful sense of the word. They do not inspire a sense of pleasure or delight as an “aestheticized” interpretation would imply. This is the case with or without our knowledge of their true context.  In fact, it seems that Herzog wishes to concentrate solely on the destruction, precisely because it is removed from the actual so-called “goals” of war. The decontextualization exposes the senselessness of the destruction, which is not tied to any rational and can thus ever be viewed as a necessary end.”  Kant’s expanded understanding of Burke’s sublime in relation to subjective experience demonstrates how Herzog’s decontextualized images work.

According to Kant in Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790), both the experience of the beautiful (das Schöne) and the experience of the sublime (das Erhabene) require reflective judgments (Reflektionsurteile).  One does not experience the beautiful or the sublime by direct recognition or logical inference. The beautiful and the sublime are experienced through reflection upon ideas associated with a particular depiction.  This subjective reflection engages the imagination, making an experience of the beautiful and of the sublime possible.  The difference between the two lies in the kind of reflection involved.  The experience of the beautiful, according to Kant, involves reflection on form and its limitations as such.  The feeling of the sublime results from a consideration of formlessness or limitlessness in contrast to the reflecting subject, which triggers associations that have to do with both infinity and totality (Kant 165).

Kant further relegates the beautiful to the realm of life and play.  By contrast, the sublime is a serious reflection on the limits of life and existence and carries with it a built-in memento mori reflex. This is the source of its terror and awe.  Kant characterizes the sublime negatively as an indirect desire (Lust) more akin to astonishment or even caution, as opposed to the more positive and direct stimulus (Reiz) of the beautiful (165). Whereas the beautiful affirms this world and its conceivable forms as a productive stimulus, the sublime acts as frustrated longing for totality, reminding the subject of the limits of human existence. Kant depicts the sublime as a negative defining moment not only of the self but also of the formlessness beyond the self. This serves as a plausible explanation for our reactions to Herzog’s images. They are mesmerizing, not because of their ability to delight in a positive way, but rather for their ability to provoke reflection on the incomprehensibility of such large-scale destruction and the mortality, even of a landscape, that that destruction implies.

Kant locates the essence of the sublime beyond perceptible forms (166). Kant distances the sublime from the external world consigning it to the internal world of the perceiving subject. It is divorced from any kind of function or design inherent in the external object being viewed (Kant 167).  Thus, it is not Herzog’s image that is sublime, but the viewer’s reflection upon what has been perceived, which reaches beyond the scope of the perceivable. Herzog taps our subjectivity not only with his provocative image but also with the most subjective of all the arts, music.

III. Music and the turn inward

The role played by music in the film and its effect on the images that Herzog presents cannot be underestimated.  Far from a simple soundtrack, the music performs an integral function in mitigating the viewer’s subjective experience of the images on screen.  Despite the emphasis placed on Herzog’s “gift for eloquent abstraction to create sobering, obscenely beautiful images” (Maslin 1) it is often assumed that this abstraction occurs mostly, or most importantly, in the visual realm of the footage.  However, as Kant reminds us, one of the major features of the sublime is its closed subjectivity, which Herzog effectively engages through music.  Keeping Singer’s understanding of Herzog’s ironic-sublime dynamic in mind, it is useful to postulate the subjectivity of the viewer as the human element of the ironic-sublime equation. If the human and super human (the sublime) are placed in uncomfortable proximity to one another, then where is the human element on our alien planet?  The answer lies with the role played by the silent viewer.  Absent a recognizable protagonist that could channel our identification, Herzog engages the viewer’s subjectivity in the aural realm.  In his purely fictional feature films, Herzog’s protagonists help focus the viewer’s identification and subjective responses. In Lessons of Darkness, the viewer is pulled into the images from an audible standpoint.

Herzog’s spoken narration is, as Roger Hillman has noted, absent for over half of the film, with music rarely yielding control of the aural realm to diegetic sound (147).  Written text appears on screen, in the form of chapter titles, as well as a fake quote attributed to Blaise Pascal at the start of the film (Cronin 243).  These are modest contributions to what can be described as a skeletal narrative structure in outline form. They act as sign posts guiding the viewer darkly in ways that suggest a narrative, more than actually providing one.  The music, which Herzog has carefully selected, supplies the main source of substantial emotional commentary when coupled with the images. Herzog says that “because there is music throughout the film, I call it ‘a requiem for an uninhabitable planet’ (Cronin 249).  And indeed, almost all of the seven musical selections have something to do with death, evoking Kant’s notion of the sublime as a reminder of life’s limitations.

Edvard Grieg’s Death of Åse accompanies the passing of Gynt’s despondent mother, the fourth movement from Mahler’s second symphony, the Resurrection, contains a Wunderhorn song dealing with the human search for meaning in the face of mortality, Arvo Pärt’s Stabat Mater is about the death of Christ and Mary’s mourning by the cross, Giuseppe Verdi’s “Recordare” is taken from his Requiem for Manzoni, and all three of the Wagner pieces can be connected to death in one way or another:  “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” obviously relates the death of the epic hero. The “Parsifal Overture” contains the somber motif of Amfortas’s guilt and spear wound, which are slowly killing him as well as the entire grail community.  Finally, the prelude to Rheingold is connected to the cataclysmic end of the opera cycle, through shared chords.  Even the two non-programmatic pieces hint at death: Schubert’s Notturno op. 148 with its slow and tragically sweet resignation and Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins op. 56 with its hauntingly cold and alienating melodies.

All of this music is non-diegetic, which, as Robynn J. Stilwell observes, tends toward subjectivity, empathy and anempathy (191).  In fact the film is hard to imagine without this music.  Just as the effect of the famous shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho is unimaginable without the stabbing chords of the music, so is the aesthetic effect of Herzog’s war devastation difficult to imagine without the non-diegetic sound track.  One wonders if the charge of aestheticizing war could have been so easily and furiously leveled had there been no such music.  Herzog uses music to create within the viewer empathy with the ravaged landscape, which in the end produces a more intimate experience and thus more vigorous responses, positive or negative, to that experience.  As Stilwell points out:

Empathy/anempathy is the relationship that the audience, presumably conditioned by the gestures in the music, has with the character:  they recognize and identify with the feelings that the character is experiencing, and may feel them, though in an attenuated from.  When we talk about subjectivity in film and film music, the connection between character and audience is more intense and more enveloping.  Anempathy can be “objective,” an observation and even understanding of a character’s feeling, but it can also be a rejection or abjection of those feelings (191).

I would venture to say that the “character” in question here is the “embarrassed and mutilated landscapes” as Herzog described war-torn Kuwait (Cronin 248).  This becomes evident when analyzing the particular dynamic of the music in tandem with Herzog’s sublime imagery.

IV. Empathy of sound and sublimity of sight

The film begins with a fabricated quote from Pascal:  “the collapse of the stellar universe will occur – like creation – in grandiose splendor”.  Herzog notes that this sets the viewer up for something momentous and sends the signal that we are in the realm of poetry (Cronin 243).  In fact, the music sets up the viewer as well, both in terms of allusion and evocative power.  We hear the prelude to Wagner’s Rheingold, which is also the prelude to the entire Ring Cycle. The music, which is a representation of the formation of the world, consists for the most part of figurations of the chord of E flat.  Musically, it depicts all of creation arising from one basic elemental chord.  As Thomas May has noted, “Wagner’s musical Genesis is one of stasis, mesmerizing in its very monotony” (118).  It grows and grows both in sound and complexity, mimicking the flow of water and eventually the surging of the Rhine and of life itself.  Even removed from the context of the opera, the music still manages to “build up a subtle tension between the restful stasis of the beginning and the process of change, of coming to be (May 119).” The piece also alludes to the end of the opera cycle, The Twilight of the Gods, which concludes with a similar chord, linking birth and death, regeneration and cataclysmic destruction, and the ephemeral with eternal reoccurrence.  It also reflects back to the fake Pascal quote, musically tempering us for something momentous in the same vein.  Then the first of Herzog’s images appear, consisting of misty landscapes, silhouettes and shadows against fire.  The darkness contrasted with the light of the fires alludes to the title of the film.  Just as the pseudo-Pascal quote “sets up the viewer for something momentous,” the music pulls the viewer into a sound world of mythic proportions as the film begins.

The first chapter of the film, called “A Capital City,” begins with long panning shots from a helicopter showing Kuwait City, actually taken after the war, with no signs of destruction.  The camera pans over the city skyline, which looks futuristic with its modern architecture, set in an otherwise barren plain next to the open sea.  The images of the city are decontextualized through Herzog’s narration describing the metropolitan center of an alien civilization oblivious of its impending doom.  The stillness of what appears to be footage taken at dawn or dusk is accentuated by Grieg’s “The Death of Åse” from the Peer Gynt suit no. 1, Op. 23.  Grieg composed incidental music to Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt with the Death of “Åse” serving as a prelude to Act III as well as an accompaniment for the scene of her death.   Peer Gynt is a Faustian tale about the protagonist’s destructive pursuit of self.  Åse, Peer’s mother, is a particularly important figure who serves both as the embodiment of moral conscience and of genuine maternal love.  Her death at the end of Act III is a pivotal moment, which precedes Peer’s decision to leave his homeland and begin his dissolute life abroad.   Grieg’s music is full of tragic melancholy expressing Åse’s tender love and ultimate resignation, as she leaves her beloved son utterly alone in the world, knowing that he has wasted his life.  Peer spends the rest of the play looking for lost maternal love, which he eventually finds in Solveig.  The music is somber and melancholy, while at the same time tender and passionate, swelling with pathos and a sense of intimate grief.

With little or no information about the reasons for this fictional alien war, Herzog lets the viewer know through the music that something beloved will be lost.  The sense of civilization’s end and of the doom of a people is conveyed by the music flooding over the cityscape, which is still undamaged and removed from any hint of war or catastrophe.  Grieg’s music continues to play in the extremely short second chapter “The War”, which comes from CNN night footage of missile launches.  Other than this no actual battles are ever shown, and the dark green night footage makes the war seem remote and alien.  The music connects the doom of the city to the actual war.  It is the effects of war that are meant to remain in focus, not the war itself.  The music stops at the end of the chapter leaving only the sounds of the air raid sirens.  The sounds of war have drowned out even despair.

Some commentators have remarked on Herzog’s use of Wagner as an allusion to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and to Nazism as well (Bingham 53). Others have noted Herzog’s use of Wagner and other theatrical music in Lessons of Darkness, as an aide to facilitate the staging of images of devastation as if in a dramatic opera or play (Hillman 147).  Brad Prager connects the use of Wagner to a shared attempt to “transform the whole world into music – the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk” (Cinema 182).  I would challenge the notion of shared intent with Wagner by association, especially with regard to the actual function of the musical pieces in the film.  It is important to remember that not only are the images in the film decontextualized, but so are the musical selections both with regard to their source, as well as their function vis-à-vis their new context, namely the aural space shared with an image, and not with an action.  They may evidence musical or textual allusions but are removed from their original contextual intentions and functions.

Hillman maintains that five out of seven pieces used in Lessons of Darkness are theatrical in nature, originating in opera, liturgy, or drama.  But I would argue that Herzog employs the music in a way that, does not in fact serve a spectacle.  The selections fall more into the category of non-referential “absolute” music in their new context, which operates much more abstractly and even idiosyncratically.  Here the context, which remains relevant, is the musical context and not a theatrical one.  Susanne Langer has described music’s symbolic nature as having “all the earmarks of a true symbolism, except one:  the existence of an assigned connotation.  It is a form that is capable of connotation, and the meanings to which it is amenable are articulations of emotive, vital, sentient experiences.  But its import is never fixed” (240).  The meanings to which the music is amenable here are triggered by Herzog’s sublime images, which are in the Kantian sense problematic emotive, vital, and sentient experiences.  Langer’s idea of music as “an unconsummated symbol” (240) finds import in Herzog’s paring of sublime ambiguous images with equally ambivalent musical expression.

I would argue that the music, as Herzog uses it in Lessons of Darkness, helps concentrate our emotional responses to the images inward onto a process of critical reflection and not outward onto an external spectacle, staged by a director’s intent. The music that Herzog uses serves an internalization process, triggering reflection on the part of the viewer in the Kantian sense.  This is also true of the music’s predisposition for emotional allusion.

Wagner’s “Rheingold prelude” takes place before the curtain even rises and serves to affect the listener without images or action.  It sets the aural stage introducing the first and arguably most important musical motifs of the work.  Grieg’s music would have been played to end the action of Act III introducing the following act.  Its ability to be divorced from any theatrical action or stage setting is vouchsafed by its place in the orchestral suites that Grieg arranged for the concert hall.  And indeed, the music expresses Åse’s internal emotional world and not any outward action or spectacle.  Likewise, the Mahler symphony may be dramatic, but it can hardly be brought into connection with staged action.  Most 19th century music is, in one way or another, “dramatic,” but this says nothing of its representational qualities vis-à-vis a visual theatrical action.  Similarly, the liturgical pieces are meant to evoke an emotional world of religious feeling and contemplation more than visual spectacle.  A passion play may be staged, but traditionally not a Stabat Mater or a Requiem.  The role of music in liturgy is rarely conceived with an eye for spectacle.  Ritual plays a much more complicated symbolic function in religious music with a deeper allegorical application than mere visual representation.  The role of Wagner’s Parsifal and “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” in the film deserves special consideration for their ability to turn Herzog’s images inward.

In chapter III “After the Battle” we hear Wagner’s “Overture to Parsifal.”  The association of all Wagnerian music with militarism or even Nazism on the basis of its use in Apocalypse Now is a superficial connection at best.  The Ride of the Valkyries could not be more dissimilar to the overture to Parsifal.  And the footage that Herzog shoots could not be more different than a Hollywood battle scene.  In fact the use of theatrical music to service spectacle would be relevant for the Coppola film, as it clearly uses the music to enhance on-screen events such as explosions, helicopter maneuvers, and machinegun fire, with the music drawing the viewer to the external action.  In Lessons of Darkness the music is allowing the viewer to take the sublime image (void of action) inward into the realm of subjective empathy. The most interesting description of the “Parsifal overture” as non-theatrical music stems from an unlikely source, namely Friedrich Nietzsche.

Putting aside all irrelevant questions (to what end such music can or should serve?), and speaking from a purely aesthetic point of view, has Wagner ever written anything better?  The supreme psychological perception and precision as regards what had to be said, expressed, communicated here, the extreme of concision and directness of form for it, every nuance of feeling conveyed epigrammatically;  a clarity of musical description that reminds us of a shield of consummate workmanship; and finally an extraordinary sublimity of feeling, something experienced in the very depths of music, that does Wagner the highest honor; a synthesis of conditions which to many people – even ‘higher’ minds  will seem incompatible, of strict coherence, of ‘loftiness’ in the most startling sense of the word, of a cognizance and a penetration of vision that cuts through the soul as if with a knife, of sympathy with what is seen and shown forth. ..Has any painter ever depicted so sorrowful a look of love as Wagner has done in the final accents of his prelude? (Newman 672)

It is interesting to note that Nietzsche had not actually seen the opera.  He had only heard the overture, which is divorced from any on-stage action, and he was of course familiar with the libretto.  What Nietzsche so eloquently describes is the music’s ability to affect the listener from within directly, in a purely musical way.  Nietzsche is responding to an aural experience and not to a visual one.  When Herzog adds his images to the prelude, he transposes Wagner’s compassion and sorrowful gaze of love onto the devastation.  We see what appear to be bones, smoke clouds in the distance, and wreckage.  This occurs during the strains of Amfortas’s wound motif.   Then the more hopeful grail/redemption motif begins accompanying footage of charred vehicles, transports, and equipment. Long panning shots from the helicopter show bombed out airplane hangars, air strips, and a pipeline with a burnt out refinery.  We finally see a destroyed satellite communications center as Parsifal’s somber redemption music fades slowly away, and we are left with radio noise, garbled frequencies, perhaps inaudible voices and codes.  The melancholy lament is finally replaced with noise and the failure of language to articulate the true meaning of the devastation.  Grief and hope are both silenced.

The viewer takes in the images and then pulls them, like Nietzsche, inward onto subjective patterns of emotion, and not outward onto external action.  It is for this reason that Herzog can maintain that his images penetrate deeper than the CNN footage (Cronin 245).  It seems to be this rather intimate process that so bothered German audience to the extreme.  The charge of authoritarianism in the shots seems aimed at Herzog’s ability to use the music and images to trigger empathy so directly.  Herzog says of music that it “changes the perspective of the audience; they see things and experience emotions that were not there before” (Cronin 256).  The ability of music to guide the viewer to different aspects of an image, or highlight certain perspectives from a subjective inward technique is how the reflective aspect of the sublime image is triggered so directly.  The same effect occurs with “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” in chapter eight.

The chapter, “And a Smoke Arose Like the Smoke from a Furnace,” uses a longer segment of “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” coupled with lots of panning shots of smoke and fire.

Wagner’s Music,” which is a kind of musical interlude between Siegfried’s Death and the final scenes of Twilight of the Gods, makes the transition from one scene to the next possible.  At the same time the piece gives us a kind of musical eulogy of Siegfried, recounting in epic grandeur the emotional world and lineage of the tragic hero, whose body is born away to be burned on a pyre.   The tragic, epic feel of the music is accompanied by Herzog’s narration of Judgment Day from the “Book of Revelation.”  Again the text removes the Gulf war context, replacing it with a biblical account of the end of days and overlaying that account with the mythical stirrings of Wagner’s larger-than-life hero.  As Hillman describes it “neither a mythical nor a false hero is dead, but a civilization” (148).

After the narration has ceased, the camera moves in closer and closer to one of the fires.  Here the slow march rhythm doubles the movement of the camera, bringing us ever nearer to the obscure image of smoke and flame.  The music reaches its crescendo as the camera zeros in on a single towering cloud of smoke.  The image is startlingly sublime in its communication of dizzying altitudes, vast formlessness, and what appears to be an all engulfing conflagration.  Even if we knew that this was a burning Kuwaiti oil well, we certainly forget it the moment we become lost in the obscurity and immensity of the image.  Far off shots of the smoke close in on the flames further down the pillar pulling us earthward.  It is reminiscent of volcano footage or sunspots.  The images are so ambiguous as to be unrecognizable.   This could just as easily be a depiction of Dante’s hell as of burning oil.  The apotheosis of the music coincides with the turning of the camera almost on its head.  Instead of the fire at the bottom of the frame and black smoke on top we have the reverse effect, resembling a volcano spewing lava.  At one point during the pivoting of the camera, the flames look like an enormous red eye.  The images are extraordinary in their foreignness and ability to defy description and conventional perception.  The music once again directs our astonishment in the face of this destructive force to a tragic and epic empathy with a warped landscape turned on its head.  With or without knowledge of the origin of the image, we are left with questions about the ultimate meaning of the things that we have seen.  The empathy that we feel with the image creates more questions about the true consequences of war than it answers.



V.  Conclusion:  When the music stops

We understand how Herzog uses music in the film even when he does not.  He uses silence and noise to achieve different effects in the film.  In chapter five, “Torture Chambers,” we hear the second movement from Prokofiev’s Sonata for 2 Violins op. 56, which is soft, eerie, cold, and inhuman sounding as the camera captures objects used in torture.  The music stops when a witness to torture is interviewed with no translation given of her account.  Sadness is reflected in her face and eyes.  The music resumes after she finishes and it carries over into the next chapter.  Here a “protagonist” enters and our sympathy is no longer with a landscape.  The coldness of the music is applied to the instruments of torture in a moment of subjective anempathy.  As soon as a human appears, the music is superfluous.   A similar thing occurs in chapter seven, “Childhood,”when Herzog interviews a mother about the speechlessness of her child. After having been mistreated by soldiers and being witness to the shooting of his father, the child can no longer speak.  Here the aestheticising effect of music is appropriately absent.  Whenever music is absent or interrupted by noise in the film, we are made conscious both of a kind of emotional numbness, as well as the failure to feel with the same intimacy granted by the music to a ravaged landscape.  Herzog seems to be aware of the limits of musical empathy.

Music is also conspicuously absent whenever the sounds and noise of destruction take to the aural field.  In chapter nine, “A Pilgrimage,” the noise of the fire predominates.  As Herzog says of the diegetic sounds in the film, “to really appreciate the film you have to see it in the cinema with Dolby stereo because for me the sound was actually the most impressive thing.  These geysers of fire shooting up 300 feet up into the sky with such pressure sounds like four jumbo jets taking off simultaneously.  It really was quite something” (Cronin 248).  There is also no music in Chapter eleven, “Protuberances”, where rivers of fire and boiling seas and lakes of oil are shown oozing and bubbling.  The cooking and gurgling sounds, which are all diegetic, create their own strange music.  Here Herzog wants the aural plane focused not inward but outward onto the new sound world created by devastation, what Stilwell references as source music’s “realistic objectivity” (191).

Herzog’s images are squarely rooted in the category of the sublime.  They are, however, not meant to please on a purely aesthetic level.  Where music is present, it is not employed to serve spectacle, but rather to channel the reflective questioning engendered by the sublime image.  Tragic empathy is created with the devastated landscape.  When the music is silent, our questioning becomes focused on human protagonists.  When it is replaced by noise, it is alienating as we struggle to comprehend not a subjective sound world, but an alien one external to our experience, but worthy of objective consideration.

Herzog’s achievement in making this hard to classify film is that he has presented images and sounds that are, in fact, less authoritarian than his critics would suggest.  The generation of empathy, anempathy, or subjective emotional reaction is completely dependent upon the shifting ambivalence of the viewer, not the director.

Herzog has indeed once again appropriated a romantic theme in order to critically engage it (Prager, Werner Herzog’s 29).  He is far from able to completely control the images he presents.  Nicola Trott reminds us of Coleridge’s understanding of sublimity as symbol:  “The circle is a beautiful figure in itself; it becomes sublime, when I contemplate eternity under that figure” (84).  Through these images Herzog has given us a circle, and the music draws us to critical contemplation.  The conclusion that we come to as a result of that contemplation is our own.  The main intent is that we have indeed begun to contemplate.


Works Cited



Bingham, Adam. “Apocalyse Then. Lessons of Darkness Re-Visited.” Cineaction 62 (2003):  50-53.


Bozak, Nadia, “Firepower, Herzog’s Pure Cinema.”  Cineaction 68 (2006): 18-25.


Burke, Edmund.  A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.  Ed. James T. Boulton.   Notre Dame, Indiana:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.


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