Oct/Nov 2003 Film and Cinema

Loath to Revere: Werner Herzog's Aguirre, The Wrath of God

Review by Mostafa Hefny

In the twilight of his life, with his sight fading, Akira Kurosawa, one of cinema's great practitioners, sought to film his dreams. The infuriating vividness of those half formed images are attractive to those who attempt to study the human psyche. It is the unfathomable similes, the impenetrable stories that titillate the analyst with answers and the artist with truths. Kurosawa's expedition ended with the simply titled Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990), in which he enmeshed the theme of man's destruction of nature with eight vignettes from his sleeping imaginings. The film was widely panned. Perhaps Kurosawa should have looked to Werner Herzog, the German who, as the eye of the beholder would have it, is either an unyielding, regressive mystifier or a true visionary. Herzog has been described as both, but he is neither. Fixated, he gives elegiac form to the images that haunt him. Yet the purpose of Herzog's most famous film, Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), is not a simple demonstration of the arresting imagery the director manages to capture. Rather, it is the inability of those stunning images to explain what needs to be explained (whatever that may be. In the film, the inexplicables are the madness of Aguirre and, on a more material level, the location of "El Dorado," the city of gold). It is the inability of dreams, of the images they bear, to reveal truth. Yet Herzog, who in later films would continue to draw audiences with his hunger for "great images," has never given up on the idea that a great truth is hidden within his images. Aguirre is evidence of this insistent journey. It is an entrancing documentary of its own failure.

As with most of Herzog's work, Aguirre is an expansion of legend that may or may not have been based on historical fact. The opening credits inform us that the Incas, trounced by the Spaniards, have "invented" the legend of Eldorado, a fabled city of gold at the roots of the Amazon. At the end of the year 1560, we are told, a large expedition led by one Gonzalo Pizarro, a dispatch of the Spanish monarchy, ventured into the jungle in search of the invented riches. Enclosed by unseen but efficiently murderous natives, Pizarro sent a group of forty, led by Don Pedro de Ursua, with Don Lope de Aguirre as his second in command, to look for civilization. Of the forty, none was to be seen again. What remained was the diary of the accompanying monk, Brother Gaspar de Carvajal. It is the authoritative voice of de Carvajal that narrates the predestined mission.

That Herzog uses history, or rather historiography, is central. That he uses the history of doomed men, those who attempted the impossible, insane, brutal, blind and blatantly immodest, is even more so. Herzog himself is hugely immodest, a relentless self-promoter. Of the innumerable horror stories told of his productions—and there have been more than a few—most were told by Herzog himself. When he filmed Fitzcarraldo (1982), the story of an obsessive who wants to drag a mountainous steamboat—equipped with an opera house—over a hill, he infamously decided to really drag a mountainous steamship over a hill (whether or not he equipped it with a real opera house is something of which I'm not entirely sure). The story gets even more lopsided when we learn that the factual Irishman, on which Herzog's Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald Fitzcarraldo was based, decided to disassemble the ship before he dragged it over the mountain, something Herzog deemed unnecessary. Herzog was not merely content with duplicating the man's insanity, but decided that it must be surpassed. It would have been infinitely simpler to shoot the ship sliding down the hill and set the camera to make it look as if it were ascending. But that would have defeated the entire purpose of Herzog's production. He doesn't attempt to understand the megalomaniacal dreams of Fitzcarraldo, or Aguirre for that matter. His films are not diagnostic. Instead, he wants to accompany them in their madness and realize their dreams.

The journey with Aguirre starts with an evocatively dreamlike image: a descent through the clouds. Occupying the left two-thirds of the screen is a green mountain embroidered with translucent clouds. On the right third is a large blanket of thick fog. Armored men and native slaves carrying women in enclosed velvet chairs make their way down the mountain. The descent into this world is accompanied by haunting but peculiar music; it is a choir, but it isn't human. The German band Popol Vuh used electronic equipment to generate the human-like hymns; the result is sad without being sympathetic, ghostly but not mournful. This startling image does not mark the beginning of the Spaniards' expedition, but of Herzog's joining it. The final scene, when the electronic choir returns, will serve as a direct commentary on this one. For now, we see Aguirre for the first time. And we recognize him immediately.

He is Klause Kinski, whose casting betrays Herzog's intentions. Kinski's demonism is immediately apparent in his gaze, or rather his face, which is a skeletal, icy-blue-eyed ghoul that has been masked with too much rubber placed on the forehead. And his walk: a disorienting hunch in his steel armor. He is a beast burdened. Had Herzog afforded Kinski even the most perfunctory of conventional scenes; food consumption, laughter, sex, etc., Aguirre could have been chalked up to a study of madness, as it has been by many a critic. But Aguirre as possessed by Kinski is a megalomaniac to begin with. When we watch him comforting his unsullied, objectified daughter he is, for the first and last time, out his armor. And for the first and last time, he smiles. Kinski kneels to his virginal daughter in her velvet chair and caresses her hand. The tenderness of this smiling beast to passive virgin is unmistakably incestuous. Many days and deaths later, when Aguirre declares that, as "the wrath of god," he will marry his own daughter and start the purest of all dynasties, we realize that visions of His dynasty have burdened him for sometime, long before this expedition. Standing amid the corpses of his men, he yells, "My men measure wealth in gold, I despise them for it." Aguirre wants what Christianity claims God is: to be ruler of all things, whatever the ruled may be.

To understand Aguirre is not to understand a complex human being, but to understand this film. In the great scene, where a messianic Kinski, addressing his men, stares directly into the camera and declares himself "The Wrath of God," it might be worth postulating what he means by that: Kinski, looking almost hurt that a man he had just had decapitated had questioned his authority, tells his frightened men, his unwilling slaves, "There is no greater traitor than I," and that "He who follows me down this river will win unimaginable riches, and he who doesn't..." and then the camera stays on Kinski's mad gaze as he refuses to finish the sentence. Herzog cuts away to the obedient men. But if the sentence had been finished—and in Kinski's gaze, it is—then it would have been thus: "He who follows me down this river will win unimaginable riches, and he who doesn't will burn in hell." Aguirre is to God what his men are to him, an unwilling slave. He is the wrath of God only until he displaces Him. Until he becomes God.

Two years after Aguirre, Werner Herzog made Every Man for Himself and God Against All (1974), a film whose title is the opposite of the Christian ethos. In Christianity—Europe's dominant Religion—to attain God is to be humbled by his creation. Herzog's Aguirre is an act of rage against an ethos that the director, with a heavy heart, turns into reverence. If Aguirre is not a blasphemous film, it is not for a lack of trying. It is a tragedy, not because of Aguirre's madness, but because of his failure to achieve what he had set out to do. And because of the failure of all those who try, have tried, and will try to emulate him. For Herzog, madness is never the subject. It is the method.

Herzog is on Aguirre's side from the beginning. When a group of men get stuck on the other side of the river, Aguirre, who is still the second in command but views all men as subjects (incompetent ones at that), decides that not only should they be left to die, but that his soldiers should fire the cannon at them, desecrating them, so that the group's leader, Ursua, cannot waste time with giving them proper burial. Because Aguirre is indifferent to the fate of the men, the camera never cuts to their screaming (they are killed in the night by unseen Indians). That same indifferent attitude is applied to every death in the film: Herzog almost goes out of his way to avoid the superficial charge of a cinematic murder. In Aguirre, The Wrath of God, every character but one dies a violent death, but, remarkably, this cannot be called a violent film. Men fall noiselessly, hit by darts by an invisible enemy in a gradually thickening jungle. Because these men mean nothing to Aguirre, Herzog remains unmoved by their demise.

It is this attitude that makes the film's extended mid-section extremely demanding viewing. Herzog never cheats. He never shoots an overhead perspective shot from the philosophical comfort of a helicopter. He is with Aguirre, part of his quest. When Aguirre and his band are on their raft, Herzog is on the raft, too. We don't see it from a distance. As the raft tumbles down the rapids, the camera has water spots on it. We know that they couldn't go back and get the shot again, or cut to a safe master shot. So the water spots made it to the final cut. He is less concerned with tone than with theme (as in the bizarre, funny scene were a decapitated head finishes the dead man's sentence). But that theme, slowly laid bare as it is, is detectable only to those willing to forgo that traditional viscerality of cinema.

The journey down the river might seem to have been directed heuristically. Like a word that has repeated too many times, so that it loses meaning and becomes a strange, mocking sound, Herzog holds his camera waiting for the jungle to reveal secrets (in one long take that starts out mundane but becomes hypnotic, Herzog points the camera at the river's raging, brown water for so long that we lose perspective, and waves move as if they are about to take form, but don't). Gradually, as the unseen Indians kill more and more men, the jungle thickens, contorts, becomes hostile, and loses its meaning. Geography and maps are no longer significant. The jungle is no longer comprehensible to mortals. Contemptuously small darts fly from the jungle and noiselessly kill Aguirre's men, whilst a woman, whose husband Aguirre murdered, walks safely over the corpses into the heart of the jungle. The camera stares reverently but fails to locate her. The decapitated head of a conspirator looks at Aguirre, and manages to finish its sentence. And as Aguirre, angry with his hallucinating, exhausted men for daring to die, screams about being the wrath of god, the camera moves to a mouse-like creature that quietly walks under his feet and removes its offspring to safer ground.

This is a wrath of a vengeful God. Herzog's camera has failed to explain Him or His Nature. His meaningless jungle. His never-ending river. Herzog's electronic choir broods beautifully, as the director finally acknowledges Aguirre's madness. Herzog watches as hordes of monkeys invade the boat, and Aguirre, picking one up, looks at it and asks it to help him conquer Mexico. For the first time, Herzog leaves the raft and Aguirre. He returns with one of the most expressive images in cinema. The camera speeding down the river approaches Aguirre's raft. It observes him standing motionless on its center. It rotates around the raft, watching Aguirre, who stands alone amidst dozens of corpses and thousands of monkeys, ruling his kingdom.


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