Werner Herzog may just be the best film director of the last forty years. Period. And I mean worldwide. While some directors of film rely primarily on precision- think Alfred Hitchcock, intellect- think Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick, visual poesy-think Terrence Malick, or visceral reaction- think Akira Kurosawa, there is no other major filmmaker that I can think of who combines all of these things so skillfully, as well as having a mastery of music, outside of Herzog. From musical scoring to narrative pacing to visual imagery, he reigns supreme. Before watching his 1972 masterpiece, Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes), for the first time, all I had seen of Herzog were some of his documentary style films and Fitzcarraldo. This was enough to intrigue me to explore his corpus more fully, and I’m glad I did, for there’s a reason this film made him a ‘name’ on par with his contemporary German directors, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders.
Aguirre, The Wrath Of God is a film that combines the best elements of such diverse great films as Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Apocalypse Now, although it is a much more visceral work than any of those films, and is topped off by one of the truly great screen performances of all time, with Klaus Kinski as the titular lead, Don Lope de Aguirre, a cripple who may also be a hunchback- whose outer deformities seem to have scarred him internally, as well. While there are numerous other supporting characters that turn in fine performances, Kinski utterly dominates the screen every second he’s on it, moving like some perverse and slavering arachnid, moving in for the kill of an insect he will never bleed fully for he will never truly get it.
The making of this film has become as legendary as Francis Ford Coppola’s own odyssey in bringing the similarly themed Apocalypse Now to the screen. Aguirre was shot on a low budget of less than $400,000, in about a month in 1971, with a 35mm camera Herzog admits he stole, but it was his fighting with Kinski on the set, and the legend of Herzog’s pulling a gun on the actor, to keep him in line, that helped contribute to its worldwide success. Herzog reputedly wrote the screenplay in two and a half days, if his informative and thankfully fellatio-free DVD commentary with Norman Hill is to be believed, but Herzog is a known embellisher. Likewise, although he has long claimed that the film was based upon the real story of the real Aguirre, a Conquistadore, Herzog admits on the commentary track that the bulk of the film is fictive, with only a few historical details peppered within.
The film, set in late 1560 and early 1561, starts on December 25th, 1560, and follows the fortunes of the power mad Aguirre and his men, for two months or so, after he is sent with the nobleman Don Pedro de Ursua (Ray Guerra), by Gonzalo Pizarro (Daniel Alejandro Repulles)- perhaps a descendant of the real Francisco Pizarro, who was dead by this time?, to explore the Amazon basin, in search of the legendary golden city of El Dorado, after an abortive attempt to reach the river with Incan slaves that Pizarro has captured. Aguirre is defiant, leads a rebellion against Ursua, declares his break from Spanish rule, and installs the dull and porcine Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling) as the puppet head of their party, and declares him the Emperor of El Dorado. He declares that he will kill all oppose them, and cut deserters into one hundred and ninety-eight pieces (yes, he’s that precise- a great subtle show of the character’s creeping dementia), then trample them until their remains can only be used to paint walls. Slowly, all the men in their party go just as insane with hunger and fever, as well as several failed attempts to stave off the depredations of Indian tribes who pick of the Spaniards one by one with arrows, spears, and poison darts. One of the dead includes a monk, Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro), who is the embodiment of hypocrisy, and who sentences Ursua to death in a kangaroo court, yet he is very really limned as a weak willed man, distorted by his own avarice. In another scene, we see that he is deluded, in a more standard sense, well before all the men go nuts, as the raft encounters an Indian and his wife in a canoe- the only encounter with the Indians in the film, other than the Spanish slaves. He hands the man the Bible he declaims is the word of God, so the Indian, never having seen a book before, simply holds it up to his ear, hears nothing, and thinks the brother a silly fool. For that blasphemy, he and his wife are swiftly executed. Incidentally, it is also the monk’s voice which provides the narrative spine for the film, for he has kept a journal; whether this was true in reality is simply not a factor in judging this film.
Eventually, Guzman dies- or is killed by Aguirre, or some of the other men who resent his gluttony while they count every corn kernel available, and Aguirre hangs Ursua, whose wife, the gorgeous Inez (Helena Rojo), later simply walks off into the jungle, during a Spanish firefight with local cannibals, rather than meet her end with the doomed expedition. Things get more and more surreal as they traipse further down the river, in exact opposition to the course Captain Willard and his men in Apocalypse Now take, which was also a film loosely based on the themes explored in Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart Of Darkness. When we see, late in the film, what appears to be a sailing ship in the upper limbs of a tree, the men can hardly believe it, because by that time they have foolishly chased off their one remaining horse on to the shore, in an oddly poetic, emotional, and sad, shot that even Herzog rhapsodizes over in the commentary as the sort of artistic moment only film can provide, as well as fallen into such a state that some of the men drink urine from the outhouse raft, while the black slave with them does not even feel pain when his leg is pierced by an arrow. In his semi-divine wrath, Aguirre fires off the cannon at the unseen killers onshore.
When his own beautiful blond daughter, Flores (Cecilia Rivera), is also pierced by an arrow, she dies slowly in his arms, and this sets off Aguirre’s full blown insanity, where he soliloquizes in an almost Shakespearean manner over founding a dynasty by marrying his daughter, manifesting what had been till then only subtle hints of an incestuous relationship, and having transcendent powers that will assure his place in history, even as, in a scene that provides one of the most grand, absurd, but apropos endings in film history, Aguirre’s raft is overrun by monkeys from the jungle, who strip bare all the remaining food. Aguirre finishes his deranged monologue to one of the monkeys he captures, then tosses away like an old rag doll, as the Spaniard party of over a thousand men that started the film has been winnowed to just one: Aguirre, surrounded by corpses, and monkeys, still planning his grand empire. Yet real emotion pervades that scene, and many before it, even as the film veers between an almost cinema verité realism and the highly stylized compositions and poses of classical painting. Fittingly, as too often in real life, it is the bastards like Aguirre who always survive- however damaged, while others, mere followers, pay in toto. He has not learned a thing from his terrible experiences, and is drifting into an immaterial place, still driven by material gain; a sad commentary on the indestructibility of human avarice, evil, and irrationality.
While the film may seem slow going at first, especially in the twenty or so minutes after the haunting visual descent from the Andes that opens the film, there is simply no way to not be swept up in the grandeur of this film, for it was shot with just one camera, and in such close quarters, that when I have read this film described as ‘epic’ I know that the critic is merely tossing about a word that will catch someone’s attention. Lawrence Of Arabia is epic, but this film is a highly personalized portrait of one man, in both its acting style and shooting style, that relentlessly circles its lead until we stare full bore into the maw of megalomania. Aguirre himself, seems to look directly into the camera as he declares, late in the film, ‘If I, Aguirre, want the birds to drop dead from the trees, then the birds will drop dead from the trees. I am the wrath of God!’ Such a head on glare into insanity gets a viewer almost emotionally claustrophobic by film’s end, which is the exact antithesis of the definition of ‘epic’. And, unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, which ends in transcendence, Aguirre merely ends, before the cusp. And, at only 94 minutes in length, it seems much longer- but in the best and grandest sense, whereas 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now are much longer films, if no more effective thematically and poetically.
Other than the DVD commentary, which with Herzog is always a treat, philosophically and in terms of the film’s making, the DVD transfer by Anchor Bay is sterling, and because it is a period piece, it has not aged one bit in terms of look. It is as vibrant as a recent film, with great tone and an excellent soundtrack by Florian Fricke’s German band Popol Vuh (after the Mayan creation myth), which always is a Herzog strength. They used electronic equipment to generate the almost human sounding choral hymns, which are hauntingly sad without being mawkish, nor bathetic. Yes, the film is slightly cropped for a television screen, at a 1.33:1 ratio, but that’s a minor quibble given the fact the film was originally shot in a almost identical 1.37:1 ratio, meaning Herzog never intended the film to be in widescreen format, some seemingly divine ratio only American films seem to obsess over. What is really terrific is that the film is expertly dubbed into English- in fact, it was actually filmed in English first, so that there is no noxious reading of subtitles necessary for the wise viewer who wants to avoid eyestrain. This means one can enjoy the film in one viewing, and even those people who hate dubbing cannot complain because the dub is as flawless as I’ve ever seen in regards to lip synchronization. There are also three trailers for the film included.
Many critics often opt out of a real discussion of Herzog’s excellence in craft by falling back on the old and misguided notion that he simplistically follows his whims and is guided by the same sort of madness he accuses Kinski of always fostering. Yet, any look at a film like this shows that Herzog transcends such myopic claims, even if unwittingly; although I seriously doubt the man who is such a scrupulous artist has ever let a foot of film be released under his name without a bit of wit applied to it. As for the screenplay? It is brilliant, knowing when to let the characters speak, and what they should say, and also relying on chance events, such as a flood which washed away Herzog’s rafts. He incorporated that misfortune into the tale. Yet, what the film ultimately says means less than the whole experience, or how it is said through the art. Herzog’s small budget becomes a strength when he cannot do overhead shots from a plane, or elaborate crane shots, nor delving close ups that gradually close in on someone, nor elaborate retakes, as Herzog, in the commentary, admits that one take was the rule- although out of practical necessity, rather than the odd obsessiveness of a Fassbinder. The camera, helmed by cinematographer Thomas Mauch, is always with the Spaniards, not beyond them, and by the film’s end the apparent motion of the raft is circular, with shots showing it move from left to right, then right to left, onscreen, whereas earlier the movement of the film and the characters was always straight ahead, almost at the viewer. The final shots, with the deluded madman Aguirre in full rant, has Herzog in a speedboat, circling around, adding final anomy to the motion of the story, and possibly history. Yet, there are other bravura celluloid moments, such as the aforementioned leaving of the horse, an early shot of the ferocious and turbid brown rapids that Herzog holds on long enough to unsettle a viewer, raindrops being left on the camera lens during a drizzle on the river, and an eerie close up of an Indian flutist, whom Herzog says, on the commentary, was retarded.
Yet, Herzog admits with justified pride that this film succeeds precisely because it does not follow the Hollywood formula: there is no real hero to root for, no predictable victory to cheer for, no visible bad guys, and no romantic interest for the leading character. Herzog amply demonstrates his superior art in the scene right after Ursua is taken away to be hung. His wife, Inez, who is repulsed by Aguirre, not attracted to him- as would be de rigueur in a Hollywood film, is shown in a shot from behind, simply gazing down at the dark and mystical river. The symbolism is simple, but immense and erotic, in its mix of death and sex, yet we never see her beautiful face, nor her svelte supple body heave. Herzog does not need to tell us that the woman is mourning her murdered husband. He thinks highly enough of his audience to assume that we get that, and also why she then later walks off into the jungle, albeit in a clean golden dress that comes out of nowhere (movie magic, Herzog proclaims in the commentary), sort of like all the stuff the refugees on Gilligan’s Island somehow had. Similar scenes, featuring a captured Incan prince, reduced to slavery and interpretation with the natives, and the black slave Okello (Edward Roland- whose character was named after Zanzibarian madmen John Okello, from whose deluded speeches Herzog culled many of Aguirre’s speeches), sketch real depths to these characters in only a few strokes.
Aguirre, The Wrath Of God is an indisputable masterpiece, and one of the greatest films not only of German cinema, but human cinema. That Herzog directed it when he was only twenty-eight years old is astonishing. Its combination of improvisation- for Herzog loathes storyboards, calling them the ‘disease of Hollywood’, with an almost Bergmanian chamber drama focus on an individual, also makes it one of the most unique films ever crafted. It is a film to be seen by anyone with a love of art, intellect, and human nature, at any age, and in any age.
Eccentric German writer/director known equally for his brilliant visionary style and tortuous filming techniques. After several years struggling financially to launch himself as a filmmaker, Herzog began his career with the wartime drama Lebenszeichen and surreal comedy Even Dwarfs Started Small. But it was the stunning 1972 jungle adventure Aguirre, Wrath of God that brought him international acclaim and began his tempestuous working relationship with Klaus Kinski. The 1975 period fable Heart of Glass featured an almost entirely hypnotised cast, while other Herzog classics from this era include Stroszek, the gothic horror Nosferatu the Vampyre and the spectacular, notoriously expensive epic Fitzcarraldo.