Movie Review: Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Topic: Film & TV
Over the holidays I was given a book called 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Surely, I thought, I’d seen at least 600, if not 700. So I eagerly headed for the index, pen in hand, in order to check off the movies I’d already seen.
I quickly discovered that I had miscalculated. Here were movies from 1920-60 that I had heard about, but never gotten around to seeing. There were foreign films with intriguing yet opaque titles (A Nous La Liberte and Aguirre: Der Zorn Gottes). After marking off the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Airplane! I sheepishly soldiered on into the B’s.
After making it through the index, my guess is that I have about 600 movies to see before I die. I find this depressing and exciting: Depressing because (a) I’m going to die (notwithstanding the money I’m squirreling away to be cryogenically frozen) and (b) I’ve already squandered the best years of my life watching crap; Exciting because there are hundreds of great movies still waiting to be seen. Huzzah!
The first movie that grabbed my attention was Aguirre, the Wrath of God. On the surface it is a semi-historical story about conquistadors searching for the mythical city of El Dorado, but it seems pretty clear that writer/director Werner Herzog intended it to work on a symbolic level as well. The write-up from 1001 Movies gave me this morsel to chew on:
The film ... is a disturbing parable that encapsulates Herzog’s flair for allegory, metaphor, dark humor, and the grotesque, his interest in alienation, obsession, and social decay; and his sense of the landscape taking on awful, human aspects.
Translation: not a good date movie.
The story is told from the point of view of a monk, Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) who tags along with some gold-hungry explorers in order to convert the native "pagans" (convincingly portrayed by real natives!) But the monk plays a supporting role here; it is Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), a mid-ranking member of the party obsessed with their mission to find El Dorado, who commands our attention from the outset. Aguirre is a dour fellow, constantly peeved with his superiors, and menacingly power-hungry. We watch him closely.
Days of slow-going through the jungle find the group dangerously low on rations, so their leader, Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles), decides to send Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra), Aguirre, and a selection of their best fighters on an expedition down the Amazon to try to find civilization (or information about El Dorado, whichever comes first). If they don’t make it back in one week, says Pizarro, the entire party will be forced to go back the way it came to avoid starvation. (No pressure, guys.) Once the search party sets off, Aguirre quickly leads an uprising against Ursua and becomes the de facto leader of the group. The remainder of the movie is spent floating down the river getting into all sorts of trouble with rapids, whirlpools, natives (or more specifically, their poison darts), starvation, hallucination, and ultimately death. Lots of death.
The movie was shot entirely on location in Peru, and it’s interesting to see how Herzog’s direction simultaneously exploits the beauty and danger of the environment. I was utterly convinced of the sheer impossibility of the terrain: climbing steep mountain passes enshrouded with fog, hacking through verdant undergrowth, wading through cesspools of muck, and careening down the roiling Amazon. The director’s commentary on the DVD version explained that the conditions were extremely difficult to work in (go figure) and some of the cast and crew were literally sick and tired, no doubt making it easier to act sick and tired.
Aguirre reminded me of Apocalypse Now and its inspiration, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. They all share similar themes, and explore the intersection between man, mind, and our place in (or out) of nature. I think it’s fair to say that Aguirre is an "art" film, so taking it on these terms, my guess is that Herzog may have had in mind a symbolic journey into the unconscious. The conquistadors set sail from renaissance Spain with supreme confidence, but as they travel deeper into the continent and farther down the river, they become sick, run low on food, have a string of really bad hair days, and resort to some pretty uncivilized behavior. So too with the mind: peel back the onion, starting with the cerebrum we find our finer qualities like logic and art, but dig a little deeper and you’ll ultimately get to the brain stem, along with our baser qualities like aggression, violence, and fear. (And Aguirre plays a really fantastic id, but it’s also interesting to watch how all of the other characters struggle to remain civil despite him.) I think Aguirre is trying to say something about how despite our language, culture, and MP3 players we’re only one small step from a bunch of monkeys, just like the ones that swarm over the raft (and Aguirre) in the final scene of the movie. I’m curious to know what other people think.
Klaus Kinski as Aguirre is fun to watch. He moves like an animal (Herzog says in the Director’s commentary that he walks like a crab) and is given to wild outbursts and fits of violence. In one scene in which the party comes ashore to investigate a native village, Aguirre strikes one of his mates on the head with the hilt of his sword. But this was no stunt. According to Herzog, Kinski actually hit him, leaving a deep gash and "almost killing him." More details of the relationship between Herzog and Kinski are described in the recent documentary My Best Fiend which, I’m guessing, will only serve to enrich the legend surrounding the making of this movie.
So in the end I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie. It is supremely unfunny, surreal, and unsettling (sounds great, huh?) but still has enough action to be entertaining, and stealthily expresses something about who we are and our place in nature. I sometimes get pissed off at "art" films and get annoyed at how inscrutable they are, but this one stuck with me long after watching it. Two opposable thumbs up!
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