Friday, May 4, 2012

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

          Fearless filmmaker Werner Herzog and madman actor Klaus Kinski began one of world cinema’s most unique collaborations with the German film Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a hypnotic masterpiece that explores titanic themes of ambition, fate, lust, and the savagery of nature through Herzog’s singular prism. Although both men have allowed myths about their on-set friction to fester—Kinski went to his grave cursing Herzog’s name, and Herzog named a documentary about the actor My Best Fiend—the work they created is just as interesting as the apocryphal story about Herzog holding Kinski at gunpoint until the performer completed filming an Aguirre scene.
          Based on an obscure historical episode, Aguirre takes place in 16th-century South America, when a gang of conquistadors broke off from Pizarro’s legendary expedition to search for El Dorado, the fabled city of gold. Although an ineffectual nobleman is nominally in charge of the gang, the real power is psychotic soldier Don Lope de Aguirre (Kinski), who ascends to supremacy through attrition and treachery.
          Woefully unprepared for a long journey deep into the unforgiving rainforest, the conquistadors wear heavy battle armor and drive their native bearers to such extremes that several bearers flee into the wilderness every night, eventually leaving the Spaniards to fend for themselves. Meanwhile, Aguirre’s dreams of glory become more and more insane, until he imagines himself a living god destined to form an incestuous dynasty with his beautiful young daughter, Flores (Cecilia Rivera), as his bride. The story delivers Aguirre to a poetic fate, which Herzog presents in one of the most haunting final images of modern cinema.
          Although it’s imperfect from a technical perspective, Aguirre, the Wrath of God has undeniable power thanks to the relentless commitment of the director and the leading man. Herzog drove his crew nearly as hard as Aguirre pushed his people, and the auteur’s maniacal drive to film the visions he saw in his head produced startling results. Among the unforgettable moments in the film are the spellbinding opening shot, which features a seemingly mile-long train of men and women navigating a treacherous mountain path, and the heartbreaking scene in which a raft filled with explorers gets trapped against a rock wall by brutal whitewater rapids.
          Herzog’s storytelling is idiosyncratic and unpredictable, so he regularly stops the forward momentum of the narrative to linger on beguiling natural wonderments or peculiar human faces. Adding to the movie’s strangeness, Herzog recruited the German synth-rock band Popul Vuh to record the score. Their overwhelming washes of choral sounds and electronic patterns give the film an elemental quality.
          While the bulk of the supporting cast delivers utilitarian work, Kinski more than compensates with a raging performance that’s genuinely frightening. His deep-set eyes and high cheekbones giving him a cadaverous mien, Kinski looks like a supernatural creature set loose on a sinful earth, destroying everything in his path. He becomes a living metaphor of hubris, and thus a perfect vehicle for Herzog’s nihilistic statement about the destruction wrought by man’s pointless war against nature. Herzog and Kinski returned to this thematic well many more times in their respective careers, but they never matched the raw incandescence of their first conflagration.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God: OUTTA SIGHT


Kevin Mac said...

Watched this for the first time, finally, after many years of knowing about it. It was great, but the commentary track is a MUST for great insights, such as how Aguirre is sort of a hunchback who walks like a crab, his body seemingly held together by belts and straps. A true movie monster, sort of a Frankenstein.

Frank said...

I was finally able to see this extraordinary film. The final moments immediate brought Shelley's poem Ozymandias to mind…
"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Barry Miller said...

A metaphor for Hitler and the madness of Nazi Germany...

oakland steve said...

It seems more of a metaphor for imperialism and colonialism, two conditions that continue to plague the majority of people, on the planet. Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, China, Russia and Japan each had its own historical episode, wreaking havoc on the poor and underdeveloped of their times. Now the U.S. is performing that role, with 800 military posts, around an otherwise peaceful, (i.e., no formally declared wars) world.

robin said...

Enjoying your site but must say that "synth-rock band" is a poor description of Popul Vuh, especially as they almost completely abandoned synths after their first period. You are more likely to find them described as krautrock. But for those who dislike that term, kosmische serves well to label strains of German ambient and psychedelia filtered through communal and anarchic lifestyles.

I am surprised you didn't mention Burden of Dreams, a documentary more impressive than Aguirre itself.