Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Werner Herzog has been called a madman, a dreamer and a maverick of cinema. An eccentric and driven filmmaker, his drive and eccentricity often crossed the border into obsession. Not surprisingly, his films have often been seen as explorations of the depths of obsession, and his masterpiece of masterpieces, Aguirre, the Wrath of God
, is no exception. Aguirre
is a fairly accessible film, considering its pedigre, and one that eschews the temporally disjointed structures and arcane avant-garde
-isms more typical of earlier German art cinema (including Herzog's own previous work). Instead, Herzog relies on simple narrative filmmaking to tell a story that is on one level a chronicle of a Quixotic yet doomed quest, on a second level, a meditation on the descent into madness and death, and on yet another level, a scathing rebuke of the cultural zeitgeist
of Herzog's age. Aguirre, the Wrath of God
begins with one of the most visually stunning shots in cinematic history (and ends with another), as conquistadors
under the command of Gonzalo Pizzaro (brother of the conqueror of the Inca), guided by Indian slaves, pick their way through the fog down an impossibly steep mountain terrace toward the jungle below. Soon, a small force leaves this main body to scout down a river in the search of the fabled city of El Dorado.
The rest of the film follows the course of this scouting party as it floats to its inevitable doom, done in by starvation, disease, the decidedly unfriendly attentions of the natives, and, most of all, by the madness and boundless ambition of the expedition's second-in-command, Don Lope de Aguirre (the incomparable Klaus Kinski).
In telling this story, Herzog makes use of a minimalistic cinematic style in which both dialogue and action are sparsely distributed. Instead, the plot unfolds primarily through a series of visual metaphors - the descent into the jungle, the river, a fully rigged sailing vessel somehow stranded in the forest canopy - which, combined with the brilliant soundtrack by ambient music pioneers Popol Vuh, help to create the trancelike dreamscapes for which Herzog is justifiably famous.
One of the highlights of Aguirre, the Wrath of God
is the simply stunning cinematography of Thomas Mauch. The fluid, languid movements of Mauch's camera mirrors to the agonizingly slow progress of the expedition (shown to particularly brilliant effect in the film's opening shots), and serves to lend an epic sensibility to a film that clocks in at a spare 94 minutes. The supersaturated colors of the jungle backgrounds become at once beautiful and suffocating - a choking, endless emerald sea, swallowing all human presence and endeavor, rendering them futile and meaningless.
Special attention should also be paid to the Klaus Kinski's performance in the title role, which is not only magnificent, but must be counted among the greatest performances in film history. For a lesser actor, the sparseness of dialogue and plotting in Herzog's largely improvised script could have presented an insurmountable obstacle, but in the hands of a master like Kinski, that very lack of dialogue and action becomes an opportunity to fill the empty space with the edges of a character created from the fragments of gesture. Kinski renders the madness of Aguirre all the more frightening by cloaking it in mystery and only allowing us to view glimpses of the beast within. Instead, we are left to intuit his insanity from subtle cues of movement and expression: his curiously bent walk; the inhuman detachment he shows in the face of the suffering and fear of his men; the way he simply materializes in front of the camera, drifting in like fog (a feat he contrived through a contorted sort of pirouette); the calculating silence into which he frequently falls. That his madness is only hinted at makes the unnervingly whispered moments of rage even more terrifying.
On the surface, Aguirre
is an exploration of the romance of the Impossible Dream, yet another sign of his obsession with obsessions, perhaps the central concern of Herzog's art. On a deeper level, it is perhaps best understood as a blistering critique of the 1960s counterculture. The Enlightenment conceit of the 'noble savage' which the hippie movement adopted as its central tenet is ruthlessly dissected, and the hollowness made manifest by the Summer of Love, Altamont and the Manson Family is given concrete expression in the form of the Indians. These, far from being the peaceful sages of hippie lore, appear in Aguirre as faceless demons of fear, invisible except for their handiwork, which is no less than death itself.
Herzog's Jungle, his emblem of Nature, reinforces this critique: Herzog's Jungle is not the counterculture's garden of delights, it is Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Here, the hippies' peaceful paradise is consumed by Kipling's 'nature, red in tooth and claw.' Though the Jungle teems with life and beauty, it is in the end a cradle of madness, and the triumph of the Jungle is a meditation on the triumph of Death.
But it is in the character of Aguirre himself that Herzog's critique of the counterculture achieves its most complete form, for Don Lope de Aguirre can be fruitfully read as the film's hippie stand-in (he conveniently even sports long hair). It is Aguirre, conquistador, and ex officio, agent of civilization, who descends into the Jungle (and into madness), stripping away the last vestigial remnants of his own civilized veneer in his pursuit of the Impossible Dream of El Dorado. What emerges is, in a sense, the Natural Man. But the Natural Man is not a man at peace and harmony with other men and nature, but a man reduced to a state of madness and endless, unquenchable desire. In Aguirre, the great lie of the Enlightenment and counterculture is made manifest: divorced from any civilized impulse, he is only a savage, vicious, ruthless and subject only to his own impulses and wishes. Instead of Rousseau's Noble Savage, the Natural Man stands revealed as nothing more (or less) than Hobbes' Leviathan. 10/10