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.


Sam Juliano said...

What could I possible add here that hasn't been said before about this cinematic milestone, which (with FITZCARALDO) is generally regarded on the uppermost level of Herzog's output. The Kinski character, one of the cinema's most narcissistic, has a contemporary in Daniel Plainview (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) and perhaps even THE AVIATOR'S Howard Hughes but the various motivational "reasons" why the journey is undertaken by this band provides interesting thematic parallels in this sense. For example, the priest is driven by the prospect of conversions, the soldiers by consternation, and the local denizens by avarice.

It's a film that employs landscapes to inform the psychological delirium it showcases, where imagery is the central mode of artistic expression. And I quite agree with your effusive praise for Kinski's performance, yet another high watermark in Herzog's cinema and in the actor's career.

Short of popping our Anchor Bay DVDs into our players, looking at this exquisite screen cap display should give we cineastes a temporary fix! Ha!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. It's one of those films that, as widely acclaimed as it is, is perhaps taken for granted a bit. As you say, what more can be said about it? But it remains brilliant, a definite highlight of Herzog's collaborations with Kinski.

Just Another Film Buff said...

What a great film. And how legendary it has become in terms of the Herzog-Kinski relationship. These are superb screenshots here, Ed.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for commenting, JAFB. It's a rare legendary film that lives up to its legend.

Troy Olson said...

My favorite of all Herzog's films. Your post has made me want to go watch it yet again!

That Herzog-Kinski pairing was so crazy, yet so perfect, putting two wild personalities with each other and managing to get the most out of each other for some brilliant movies.

MP said...

Excellent review Ed!
It's one of the films that shows perfectly what filmmaking is all about: megalomaniac egos and extreme landscape!
BTW I really like your Films I Love!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for commenting, Troy and Michael. The Herzog/Kinski pairing was one of the great director/actor collaborations in all of cinema, a perfect meldig of two out-there personalities. It's a wonder they never did kill each other, and instead made all these great movies together.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Hello there - I've been enjoying your site for some time and thought I'd drop by and send my regards. I recently reviewed AGUIRRE myself on my blog The Celluloid Highway - please feel free to check it out and let me know what you think

all the best!


Dave said...

Sorry for coming late with the comments, Ed, it's been a crazy week! Your screen caps for this great film are outstanding, as is you write-up here. I go back and forth on when Herzog adventure-epic I prefer: this one or Fitzcarraldo. Both are undisputed masterpieces, in my opinion. Aguirre is certainly the tighter film and in that elusive "greatness" category, would have to rate higher. Fitzcarraldo has the charm of its main character though, which always appeals to me.

Still, I don't want to pull away from the topic at hand. Aguirre really is an incredible experience. I think what draws me to it so much is that I seem to have a view of nature (and other "primitive" societies) similar to that of Herzog. I find them absolutely gorgeous and unbelievably fascinating... but at the same time, a bit terrifying. Aguirre captures this dynamic perfectly.