Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God) Reviews
Aguirre lends itself to so many films that came after it, particularly Apocalypse Now. The basic premise between the two films is the same. A mission on a boat slowly falls into total chaos. Just like the characters on screen, we have no idea what's around the bend in the river ahead. With Aguirre, there are two things that make it such a great movie. The first is Werner Herzog's direction. All great directors use the environment and the background as another character in their film. Herzog accomplishes this by making shots seem so beautiful and so sinister at the same time. What lies in the trees over there? Herzog gets into the soul of the jungle right along with the souls of the characters.
Of course when we talk about characters we have to discuss the second part of the Aguirre equation and that is Klaus Kinski. He is that desire, that rage, that cut throat individual that will advance to his goal no matter what the cost. He surveys the land like a god looking over his domain. He will start is own empire, even when things are at their darkest. In a way Aguirre and Kinski are bound by their identities. They're the same person in the end.
Aguirre is one of those films that people stumble upon. A story that doesn't sound like much on the surface becomes an imaginative journey into the unknown. A story that is universal in nature, Aguirre is a great piece of German cinema.
Aguirre is shown as part of a Conquistador's crew. After many days in the rainforest, he tires of being ordered about and decides on becoming the leader of the expedition. No one protests; he is sly, skillful and ruthless. He creates an imaginary Kingdom in those lands ("El Dorado"), names one of the crew members King, and takes his men -and his daughter- upriver, to the conquest of the rest of the jungle.
The film is masterfully developed, building up moments of tension and release until the haunting ending. Throughout, the uncertainty is unbearable. The key here, I believe, is Herzog's treatment of silence, facial expressions, and time. This story about a madman in the jungle becomes monumental Nothing happens for a long stretch, and then a rebellion, a gunfight, a hallucination... The characters are mostly quiet, silenced by Aguirre's own threatening stillness, but Herzog's close-ups of their faces suggest thoughts, plans, schemes, desires. Many of them don't know why they're there (both in the film and in real life).
The cinematography is bewildering and, as Herzog said himself, the jungle acts as a psychological mirror for the characters: their minds are cluttered, dense, and increasingly menacing towards each other as they sail deeper. Dialog is very scarce, but often memorable. One of the director's trademarks, besides the realism of his filmmaking, sometimes so honest that it seems obvious, is his choice of supporting actors: he picked several non-actors who give a fascinating air to the film and take the "documentary" feel even further. When they talk, they seem to be addressing you.
The most obvious standout is Klaus Kinski's terrifying performance as the Wrath of God: brooding and collected like a criminal on death row planning a breakout. He seldom speaks. Kinski acts with his walk and his face. When he talks, the jungle goes silent, and the cast gets nervous. This is one of the greatest actors I've ever seen. He had everyone, even Herzog, on the edge of their seat. The true story behind this painful shoot is only coherent with the powerful performance. Together, actor and director seemed to reach a perfect understanding. They admired each other even if they didn't admit it then. If they hadn't, Aguirre would have never succeeded.
Few people can capture the essence of obsessive compulsive behavior and (ultimately) total madness like Werner Herzog. And he does it in a way that (at times) can almost feel like a documentary. At least from a visual standpoint.
Having said that, few people can play obsessive compulsive and/or mad quite like Klaus Kinski. Though with Klaus, I tend to doubt that these characteristics were much of a challenge for him to bring to the screen.
While the stories of their shoots together are the stuff of (film shoot hell) "legend", the end result was usually a masterpiece in one sense or another. This film is no exception and could not be made today with the same powerful realism. With the exception of the horribly fake 70's "special effects" blood. of course.
I would love to hear his (real life) daughter Nastassja Kinski recount of this shoot. She plays a small role as Aguirre's daughter in the film.
A thousand Spanish conquistadors make their way across and through the Andes Mountains. A cage and the chicken within it don't make it. Everyone else does. Instantaneously, they descend into the Amazonian jungle below. It becomes very clear that the Amazon River plays a big part - rather appropriately - in the vast jungle itself, and these men (plus two women) are searching for El Dorado. And they will probably find it much faster if they split up into units; one traveling across river by raft, another by land. Gonzalo Pizarro, commander of the expedition in its original form, assigns one of his most fierce and trusty conquistadors - Lope De Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) - to head the river-raft expedition. Once the two units have gone their separate ways; there's no turning back.
Aguirre is a frightening, deceiving, secretive, scarred man. He has a face that looks as if he hasn't smiled once in his life; although we do see him with a wide, silly grin for a brief moment in the film, when he presents to his young daughter (who has gone along for the ride) a sleepy sloth that is so small that it can fit into the palm of his hand. But this is nothing more than momentary bliss; he is otherwise a sadistic control freak, feared by his fellow men and especially his fellow women. He is like a time bomb without a time; pretty much ready to explode at any given moment. But that moment cannot be predicted; adding even more danger to his character.
All the same, he is willing to command his unit; keeping his - and their - eyes on the prize. Traveling by their wooden raft, which floats elegantly across furious rapids that closely symbolize and mimic the perverse anger of the titular character; they must keep going until they reach the desired destination. However, this is easier said than done; cannibalistic Indian tribes linger not far from the shore of the treacherous brook, spears and poisonous arrows in hand. One might suppose that the animals of the Amazon would prove a problem too; but in this case, they are seen in a more sympathetic light. From the pigs to the little sloth to the dozens of monkeys in the film's concluding frames; the animals represent a sort of deep-seeded connection with nature.
But what else would one expect from Werner Herzog, writer and director of "Aguirre: The Wrath of God"? Naturalistic, observant, existential, and intellectual; he is a filmmaker of many talents. He is famous not only for his work in the departments of feature filmmaking; but also for his in-depth, passionately-made documentaries. His gifts and skills as a documentarian have served him well in the past; and even if "Aguirre" was made before he had made a name for himself in the field of documentary filmmaking, it kind of feels like a film from that genre anyways. But the fact that it is a straight-up feature film production lends it an upper hand; and advantage; a unique flavor that a documentary on similar subjects might have lacked all-together. It's the sort of cinematic experience so rich and delicate that you can practically taste, touch, and smell anything that can be seen or heard.
What I love about "Aguirre" is the fact that, in terms of story and characters, it is purely minimalist; but when speaking of the film as a visual experience, it is something new and hallucinatory. Herzog achieves a sort of dark, enamoring surrealism with the film; relying more on beautiful, inspiring, frightening, moving images rather than sympathetic or memorable characters. That's not to say that the film is without its narrative substance - it's a very well-told story of madness, obsession, and authority - but people come back for what they can see, hear, and above all, feel. One can certainly absorb the film in one sitting, yes, but it's completely beneficial to see the film a few more times afterwards, for only then will the viewer get a tight grasp on Herzog's artistic vision in its most complete form. There are symbols - some obvious, some not; and some that I can't identify whatsoever, therefore rendering them irrelevant to me at the time, but certainly not irrelevant for the future - that carry the film and give each image some background and panache.
This is another superb, intoxicating performance from Klaus Kinski - Herzog regular - and we all know that he's had a good many of those. So I'm not exaggerating when I say that I think his portrayal of Aguirre is unpredictable and masterful enough for me to call it perhaps his best performance in his entire, expansive, life-long career. I don't know what that says to you, but to me; it says a lot. Kinski is intense and capricious; the only thing we know is that he is angry and relentless towards the crew that he has been given, but we often question: why? Herzog isn't ready to give us all the correct answers - as this is a work of fiction and the imagination rather than a close, accurate history lesson - but he provides the audience with enough questions to keep each member of it busy for a few solid months, days, possibly even years.
I do not have any favorite scenes from "Aguirre". In a sense, every scene is my favorite. It is a film filled with such stunning whimsy and imagery that one cannot simply single out specific scenes and images, labeling them as more important than any others in the film. The case is that they aren't; every image is of equal importance and relevance. They are all beautiful; and they've all captured me in some way. Through the macabre, strange, inexplicable poetry of the movie camera; Herzog is able to take us on this grand trip. Through the jungle, through the river rapids, through the all-too-humane corruption of each hero and each villain; we watch in horror, but in the end, we are but sloths to Herzog's gentle palm, and he neither exploits nor attempts to explain us.
Arthouse Rating: 4 stars
Watching Aguirre, Wrath of God was more like watching a really well made play than a movie. The costumes, screenplay, and setting just felt more like you're at a theater with a green screen behind the characters. This is a movie you can just sit back and relax through, no twists, turns, or a complex plot. This had a large con to it though, this really had me zoning out. I was in Tellitubby land for more than a third of the movie. This is what caused the large gap between my rating and the arthouse rating. The abuse of the horse did piss me off, it's the only thing that set off a reaction from me. Most people will enjoy this, and everyone will appreciated the work put into it, but it just wasn't my movie.