Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Films I Love #49: Aguirre, The Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
Werner Herzog's view of nature as essentially hostile and frightening is expressed most eloquently in Aguirre, The Wrath of God, a poetic, dream-like film about the attempts of a group of Spanish conquistadors to find El Dorado, the fabled South American city of gold. The gold is just a myth, of course, and Herzog underlines the folly of these explorers by opening his film with a series of title cards that describe how the Indians of the region invented the legend to fool the greedy, gold-obsessed Spanish. The self-proclaimed leader of this expedition is the conquistador Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), at least after he kills off and suppresses any potential opposition. As the group ventures further and further into the heart of the rain forest, losing men to disease, internal squabbling and brutal attacks from local Indians, Aguirre loses control, focusing with monomaniacal intensity on his impossible goal of wealth and conquest. Aguirre is the archetypal Herzog hero, possessed by mad ambitions, crazed in his determination to conquer any obstacles in his path, even if nature itself seems to be conspiring against him.
This is one of the finest performances of Kinski's career, perhaps because there is so much of the conquistador in the actor to begin with. He channels the intensity of the role through his wide blue eyes, and his rants have a quiet purposefulness that does little to disguise this man's increasingly unhinged mind. Herzog always knew how to get the best out of the wild Kinski, giving him parts where his wide-eyed stare and unstable personality would infuse the character with depths that probably no other actor could bring to bear on these roles. But despite Aguirre's disintegrating sanity, the film is mostly quiet and evenly paced, with a poetic sensibility in its long shots of the river or the eerily silent jungle surrounding it. Herzog has always viewed nature with a combination of abhorrence and distanced respect, and his images here are frequently gorgeous and haunting, admiring the killer beauty of nature as it swallows up these men.