December 29, 1972 (West Germany)
West Germany (German)
Written and Directed by Werner Herzog
"Aguirre, the Wrath of God" is a wrath of filmmaking. One director, his star, and those brought along for the ride create a piece of cinema that I will never do without.
"Aguirre, the Wrath of God" changed my perspective on all of cinema as I first sat down to watch it several years ago. Like few times before and after I had a "You can do this in a movie?" wonderment as I observed. The very first shot (which I refer to as the greatest tilt in filmmaking) scaling down the mountainside near the iconic Machu Picchu of Peru lives on in my memory: A long caravan of Indian slaves trek their way down the steep switchback trail. As the camera continues its downward path we hit a valley and then another mountain enters the frame. The same progression of a hundred souls or more continues up this grade to the very position the makers are filming from. Rare moments run continually on a loop in my mind's eye. This is one of them.
Opening title cards inform us that the Spanish have come to the southern America in 1560 searching for El Dorado, that legendary city of gold. The conquistadors-in-command have even brought their wives along. Not Don Lope de Aguirre though, he brought his daughter. The story is told through the narrated journal entries of a priest along for the journey which conclude when his inkwell runs dry. What they are ultimately replaced with is the key to the whole excursion.
One reconnaissance expedition is sent from the assembly to raft down the Amazon. The company and cast is only further whittled down from here on out, descending into the jungle and decision into a sovereignty all of their own. Aguirre retains second in command, a position he skulks around with like a two-legged arachnid. The performance is given by Klaus Kinski, an infamous and frenzied German actor. Kinski is an onscreen force the likes of which I have yet to see compared. Like the characters on this fever dream of a quest, he is deeply entranced.
The story behind the making of "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" is as interesting as the film itself: Shot with a stolen 35mm camera from Herzog's film school and the ways the director (Herzog) wrangled and riled his star (Kinski) as needed for specific scenes are among the plentiful stories. For these two it was the inciting incident of a great and terrible relationship, which you can see fragments of on the screen. At times the fourth wall (the screen) is dissipated as Kinski's challenging stare pierces us as we watch. I have seen the film several times, but on my next viewing I will be spying to see if Kinski ever blinks. He is always staring into an abyss that he seems to see all around him.
Herzog depicts the Peruvian jungle as hell. The churning muddy waters, the eternal bird cry, no sunlight, no night. Aguirre and the rest are floating down a river of maladies and mania. Cannibals on the shore shout "Meat! Meat!" as they pass by. There are no friendly feelings among the troop, only the undying desire for a fortune they never glimpse. At one point they encounter peaceful natives. Even the priest's eyes lust after the gold around one Indian's neck before remembering his true errand, to spread the Gospel.
"Aguirre, the Wrath of God" will not appeal to the masses. It has reached cult status over the years for reasons I have tried to describe, but if you compare it to the production values of today (or even its day) you will be bewildered by the contrast. Herzog's tour de force feels like a documentary because in many ways it was. Shot sequentially on location, in dire circumstances, on nowhere near the budget it needed, and later dubbed, it is a bloody miracle something ever became of it. To me (and many) it is not just something, it is a testament of guerilla filmmaking and an abiding odyssey of an untouchable man.
The film's music is a possessing imitation of the human voice by Popol Vuh. It's as if a choir of the damned has stumbled upon the adventure and decided to lament, punctuating the most severe moments. The final scene of "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" is as timeless as the first. For some it will be a relief that the film has finally concluded. For others it will suffice until the next time they experience this unmatched masterpiece of art and of anguish. Some will find the city of gold at the end of the river. Others will only see madness.
"I am the wrath of god. The earth I pass will see me and tremble. But whoever follows me and the river, will win untold riches. But whoever deserts..."
- Don Lope de Aguirre
Updated on 6/7/13