Brandon's Review of Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes)
This highly influential exploration of the machinations of society would set the template for the rest of Werner Herzog's career in fiction film making and prove to be his most prolific and talked about film. The movie itself is not widely seen or talked about beyond cinephiles but Herzog's dark portrayal of an actual 16th Century Expedition by Spanish Conquistadors in search of El Dorado in the Amazon would inspire countless other filmmakers with both its meta themes and the staggering effort it must have taken to film the damn thing on scene in Brazil. In fact the film and its hands on approach to film making is what inspired Francis Ford Coppolla's infamous sojourn to Vietnam to shoot his now lauded Heart of Darkness adaption Apocalypse Now. In Herzog's own career apart from being a vivid showcase of the themes of homo sacer, society destroyed by disaster and of Imperialism gone horribly wrong which are three of his favorites was also his first project with distant relative and at the time minor German Star Klaus Kinski. Though at the time Kinski was best known for appearing in Spaghetti Westerns he would cement himself here and later in Fitzcarraldo as one of cinema's most fascinating actors, not least of which due to his and Herzog's infamously tortuous professional and personal relationship. Much like the aforementioned Vietnam epic, this has one of the most notoriously brutal shooting histories of all time, with countless cast and crew almost dying as Herzog recklessly refused to use special effects (yeah they're actually firing cannons into the jungle and the like) and Kinski and Herzog's friendship was never as bipolar as on this film where Kinski lost part of a finger and the two reportedly actually tried to kill each other multiple times. It's understandable than to wonder is this really a good movie or just a fascinatingly hectic clusterfuck? Well let's descend into the clouds and take a lawful look.
As the title suggests the movie is about second ranking Conquistador Lope de Aguirre (Kinski) a historical footnote and nut job who was part of Pissaro's original expedition to South America. Pissaro's party is split into groups in an attempt to spread out and find El Dorado in the jungle under a deadline and Aguirre finds himself under noble and high ranking Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra). Tensions inevitably come to ahead however and when Ursua decides their time is up and they must return to Pissaro treacherous Aguirre intimidates the rest of the group into following his puppet "Emperor" the fat nobleman tag along Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling) and imprisoning Ursua. However neither Aguirre nor the rest of them including the Monk Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) who documents the trip can anticipate what hardships await them in the jungle and ultimately Aguirre's hubris is their undoing.
This story of the film is a lot more than the sum of its parts, the most basic thing to take away from it is people are overly ambitious and often that coupled with greed can lead them to ruin. A slightly deeper read is that the film is about the folly of 16th Century Western Imperialism, this is not a new idea but it can't be denied it's built into the very nature of the events the film is based on. The Conquistadors viewed themselves as God's people and thought they could come to a totally new environment and take it over and colonize it on the first try. But the film serves as a showcase of their foolishness which ultimately leads to their destruction as they try to carry litters of nobleman and women through the jungle as well as horses and cannons which are useless in the rainforest environment. For all their pomp and sincerity and talk of bringing enlightenment to the savages they end up looking like the fools and they trip and stumble their way through the jungle and end up starving, near death and adrift on a slowly breaking apart raft. And truly this is an idea Herzog likes to toy with he doesn't exoticize the South Americans in fact the film mocks it, by portraying many of the South American characters like the deposed Tribal Prince who longs for fealty from his people as just as foolish as the Spaniards. One of the more memorable characters is Pissaro's black slave Perucho played by Daniel Ades who is sent with the rest of them and proves just as stupid and arrogant. But there's an exciting third level the story probes which is one largely critical of society and the norms we place on it. Some of the more humorous moments of the film come from the Conquistadors trying to impose rules of life in Spain onto the unforgiving and untamed jungle, like in the ceremony coronating their "Emperor." The movie basically is an exploration of how our society only really works in the world that we've carved out, basically we've bent the Earth around us to our will and in nature societal stigmas are unnecessary and in fact look downright foolish. How the viewer interprets that is largely up to them, it's certainly saying look how far we've come but how the movie and Herzog feel about that is a different matter. Personally I think Herzog has a problem of over romanticizing man and the Earth's primal nature but its still a fascinating treatise to a fascinating film.
There's a deceptively lot going on in this story, it becomes a battle between religion (who if you keep score is one of the first ones out), hereditary nobility, actual chivalrous nobility and the madness that exists in us all and while we all knew which would be the last one standing from the very beginning it's still marvelous to see how it unfolds in this film. All of this works all the better for Herzog's brilliant direction, how he got many of these shots we'll never know but the fact this was made in the middle of the Amazon is certainly prevalent and helps to make so many shots in this utterly unforgettable especially the ending. Also pervasive is his love of animals with many actual rainforest fauna popping up throughout this film to often breathtaking effect even with some of the simple ones like mice. Tying it all together is the performances other than Kinski as the madman Aguirre none of these are exceptional stand out roles but he coaxes such a great and naturalistic performance from the notoriously hammy Kinski you can't help but not care. Kinski looms and slouches his way through the movie alternating between growling his lines and saying them in an aghast windswept whisper and damn it does it work. This movie's a classic for a reason it holds up far better than I expected upon first hearing about it as an influential movie and just a bona fide masterpiece in its own right. Whether Herzog reached these heights again immaterial he reached them here, and no one's accusing Herzog of being a slouch of a Director.