Werner Herzog Season – Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)
If Werner Herzog is considered to have made a masterpiece or two during his long and prolific career then Aguirre, The Wrath of God would make a strong case for his first. The 1972 film is also infamous as the first of five turbulent collaborations between Herzog and his ‘best fiend’ Klaus Kinski, a collaboration forged in cinema osmosis between directors and vessel to rival Scorsese & De Niro, Kurosawa & Mifune, Sandler & Coraci. Opening to a gods eye view of a mysterious mist shrouded boscage a human expedition moves cautiously through the undergrowth, like a slow trail of ants swamped by the enveloping jungle canopy. It is the mid 16th century and this doomed group of conquistadors are traversing the Andes, lead by Spanish soldier Lope de Aguirre (Kinski) across the Orinoco and down the Amazon River, in a fevered search of the legendary city of gold El Dorado, infecting the cradle of nature with their mortal obsession of gold and riches. Curiously enough I have been covering the London Human Rights Film Festival recently and much of the screening material concerns crimes committed in Central and South America during the 20th century, injustices, divisions and the theft of resources initiated by the invading conquisidors in the 16th and 17th centuries, arguably fuelling some of the grievous revolutions and uprisings two centuries hence. It’s a pretty good job that we, as a species learn from this blood drenched mistakes and don’t repeat them, like say in the Middle East or anything isn’t it?
Like the film’s closest Herzog companion piece Fitzcaraldo you must marvel at the sheer folly, the crazed chutzpah of shooting in such treacherous and remote conditions, the director and his crew at the mercy of the elements and the indiscriminate jungle just as much as Aguirre and his doomed expedition was four hundred years earlier. As Aguirre slowly seizes control of the party as they make their way deeper into the jungle the pious participants turn inward upon each other, squealing like rats in a cage as their resources, food and water are depleted, as the normal functions of society erode and wane. Man adopts the primitive functions of pure survival, of resigned surrender to the enclosing environment, yet perverts the functions of society to ameliorate and rationalize his destructive actions – colleagues are executed for blasphemy and treachery to the crown, a nonsense given their precarious survival and need for collaborative defense from their indigenous foes. Shot handheld with frequent close-ups and an aural soundscape punctuated with the screeching, invisible wildlife of the wilderness it’s a humid and draining film, with an inevitable fate heralded in the first pungent frames.
Through the narrative construction the film is waterlogged with metaphors, raft, any sort of journey can be read on a micro individual or macro social level, I kinda saw it as query into man’s unknown and unyielding place in the universe, drifting past shores and mysteries unknown, hostile, beautiful and unsympathetic . The film is accentuated with some small, seemingly insignificant visual moments – a shrouded Spanish horse abandoned on the shore, lonely, adrift and sure to die in the jungle; the olive-skinned noblewoman walking purposely and mournfully to exile once her husband perishes, gracefully accepting her inevitable death in the crepuscular canopy; a rodent seizes the young, barely born offspring from a nearby nest and spirits the poor creatures away for sustenance; like brushstrokes on a canvas this is how Herzog etches this haunting odyssey, all harmonized by a keening score from the electronica synthesisers of Krautrock protégés Popol Vuh. For all these ingredients it is Kinski whom is the pungent pulse of the movie, perhaps the all-time screen personification of erratic eyed lunacy, terrifying the cast and extras on set with his erratic behaviour that bleeds into the film, adopting Herzog’s direction to move ‘like a crab, like a spider’ as his uberman becomes perverted and absorbed into the jungle.
The Blu-Ray is a glorious transfer which sizzles with the vivid colours of the indigenous peoples prismatic ponchos. For scholars there is an illuminating commentary from Herzog himself which details the arduous shoot, bursting with anecdotes and battles with the elemental forces that he had to master to get his vision on-screen – Kinski and the jungle. He describes Aguirre as a very ‘physical’ film due to the sheer effort required to mount and film it, and there is a rather astounding revelation that he wrote the entire script in two and a half days, whilst travelling with a football tour with his sporting colleagues. I also loved his comment about ‘storyboarding is a disease of Hollywood, it kills all spontaneity of filmmaking’, remarking that he simply had to dream up some moments on the day and capture wonderful incidents of flora and fauna as they unexpectedly occurred, this methodology is no surprise yet it confirms what an organic and instinctive filmmaker he was. Coppola has cited the film as a then contemporary inspiration for Apocalypse Now which would lurch into its own insane production only a couple of years later (Aguirre only got US distribution in 1975), another quest of foreign interlopers battling a hostile nature and indigenous population turning the crew and cast as fevered & frantic as the characters they were portraying.
Herzog has never been a director whose work you view and remark ‘oh, what a wonderful dolly shot he used there’ or ‘that steadicam work really makes the set breathe doesn’t it?’, instead it is always about the interior grappling with the infinite, exploring the purlieus, the margins of the physical and mental worlds he builds through his assortment of colorful characters, the outcasts and loners that his gives a voice in a world plagued with conformity and staid despair. Despite Kinski being the only named actor in the film Aguirre has a ensemble effect, a wondering troupe of performers utterly out of their depth, mired in the waters of hubris and pampered stupidity. The folly of dragging heavy modern weapons into such treacherous conditions, the religious blinkers and righteous repulsion, the power hungry foreign expeditions still strikes close to home, historically speaking. The film closes with one of Herzog’s most mesmeric images, of one forlorn and lunatic muttering figure, surrounded by the dead and dying on his ship of fools, his dreams and desires collapsed into ash as he glides into oblivion, assimilated into the wilderness;