Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) | Directed by Werner Herzog | Drama/Action/Adventure | Rated R | With Klaus Kinski, Ruy Guerra, Del Negro, Helena Rojo, Cecilia Rivera, Peter Berling | Werner Herzog Filmproduktion | Runtime: 90 minutes | Box Office: N/A | Rotten Tomatoes score: 98%
A party on an infallible expedition treks through mist-shrouded peaks, setting foot into ancient jungles beset by Indians, and finally drifting down the Amazonian rapids in search of the fabled golden city of the natives.
Following, the commander’s death, they contemplate retreat. Don Lope de Aguirre, second in command, instigates a mutiny among the men, trusting in the insubordinance that enabled Hernando Cortes to conquer Mexico.
He selects a figurehead of Spanish royalty, seizing the chance to continue on fearlessly, until starvation and the arrowheads of Indian begin to corrode every soul on board.
Aguirre severs the head of a deserter, claiming, “I am the greatest traitor. None can surpass me.”
Werner Herzog’s 1972 production continues to upheave popular perceptions of film. Forsaking a subjective narrative relying on dialogue and acting, Herzog shrewdly chooses a semi-documentary mode of cinematography, allowing the audience to shed the thespian elements of the characters in order to truly understand their emotions and observe the film’s events as witnesses. In addition, he adopts a similar approach in processing the characters–most of the film’s scenes lack any form of rehearsal whatsoever, but rather leave the actors to experience their roles by themselves(indeed, Herzog requested the cast to scale mountainous paths while bearing heavy gear, to traverse rivers upon rafts)–therefore every sliver of passion, fear, and rage present in the film comes off as exceptionally lifelike.
Florian Fricke and his band Popol Vuh’s vital soundtrack prevents the film from being labeled a legitimate documentary. Music contributes immeasurably to Herzog’s allure. The soundtrack in itself, partly taking inspiration from nature, is especially plain and simple; it conveys no emotional package, but rather helps stimulate the audience’s instincts from within. In a sense, it sculpts an invisible frame for sentiments to roam free. Herzog’s approach allows the viewer to transcend beyond the film’s space and time, and the effect is the antithesis of POV commonly used by documentary directors–the characters’ predicaments are both irreplicable and intangible in the view of the audience. Occasional eye contact made by the actors fixate the characters’ emotions and dilemmas viscerally into our consciences: we face not a persona in a film, but a human being.
Gustave Le Bon, a French psychologist and sociologist, once stated in his 1895 work The Crowd, “Crowds were said to be instinct driven, criminal, credulous, primitive, simplistic, irascible, brutal, coherent, violent…..Unlike individuals, crowds were by nature ‘irrational’ and in presenting the crowd as a single organic entity.” Elevating the film’s dementia is Klaus Kinski, playing Aguirre, whose harsh blue eyes and marble face manifests a deranged challenge aimed at divine authority, and a cruel yet primitive lust for gold. He thrives and crescendos along a meandering river, through thick vegetation, towards insanity–an insanity surpassing that of ordinary mobs. Herzog demonstrates a certain deftness in maneuvering such anomalous characters. Truly, each soul produced from his pen is consumed by an irrational, nearly blind pursuit, proven once again by 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, in yet another collaboration with Kinski. He even uttered these words of self-reflection: “I shouldn’t make movies anymore. I should go to a lunatic asylum right away.”
The director’s madness surfaces again in the film’s final scenes, with Aguirre leaning aslant against the craft’s mast, wearing the purple armor indicative of divine right, arrogantly regarding his dissolved dreams and reality.
“I will marry my daughter, and with her, I will found the purest dynasty the earth has never seen.”
“I am the wrath of God.”