Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Klaus Kinski, Ruy Guerra, Helena Rojo
Plot: In in 16th century, the ruthless and insane Aguirre leads a Spanish expedition in search of El Dorado.
Genre: Adventure / Drama
Rating: PG for some violent images.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: YES)
Aguirre, the Wrath of God opens with a spectacular wide shot showing a long, snaking line of big, strong men in armour navigating a treacherous mountainous terrain. Tagging along are Indian slaves, animals for slaughter, and a few well-dressed women of royalty. The minimalist, atmospheric electronic score by Popol Vuh accompanies the scene, its strangeness echoes in the vast, inhospitable nature that surrounds these brave and crazy men.
In just the opening five minutes, director Werner Herzog brilliantly transports us to a world that could be described as curiously bizarre. By the end of the film, Herzog has brought us to the edge of madness and back, leading us to question the extent to which power, greed, and fame can possess one man to see past reason and rationale, and as a result, cause his followers to suffer terrible consequences.
Aguirre, the title character, as played by the great Klaus Kinski, is that man in question. He oversees a mutinous charge to overthrow the expedition’s leaders, and force the rest to follow him in search of El Dorado, the fabled city of gold. During their journey, these people find themselves lost and trapped in an environment they know little about.
Shot in the Peruvian Andes, Aguirre is one of many Herzog pictures that are characteristically (or should I say, notoriously) filmed in daunting, and almost hellish conditions, making the great German director a rare breed amongst even purportedly crazy filmmakers. To constantly put actors and crew in the hellhole, and direct them according to his artistic demands, Herzog has taken filmmaking to, for better or worse, a new level of obsession.
Story-wise, Aguirre takes quite a while to pick up momentum. This is probably due to the presence of a narrator, whose monotonous recount distances us from the characters. It is only past the quarter mark that the lead character Aguirre starts to shine. Kinski's performance slowly grips us, as we are dragged into his insanity.
The last half-hour of the film sees him on a huge wooden raft floating in the middle of a still river under the scorching sun. His men are feverish and hallucinating. Some see a boat washed up on top of a tree. But could it be real? After all, they seem to be in a world where a man beheaded at nine can still count to ten.
The very remarkable final shot sees Aguirre standing motionless on the raft, now filled with decaying corpses and hundreds of scurrying, scavenging monkeys. The camera revolves around it multiple times like a whirlwind, suggesting that the madman is giddy with the prospect of fame and power.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God is raw, hypnotic, violent, and filled with macabre humor. It is one of Herzog’s best films, and one that very much introduced the civilized world to a filmmaker whose cinematic pursuits literally knew no boundaries.