Movie Review – Aguirre, The Wrath of God

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)
Written & Directed by Werner Herzog

Germany was a very different country after World War II than before. It was sundered in two, the city of Berlin divided in half. German cinema, which had been quite a robust center of challenging artistic work before the rise of the Nazis, was gone and didn’t recover in the wake of the collapse. Meanwhile, there was the French New Wave, Italian neorealism, and Britain’s Angry Young Man subgenre of pictures. In 1962, a group of German filmmakers released a manifesto declaring Germany’s old cinema dead and the birth of something new. In 1965, the East German government set up a fund to provide money to filmmakers, but that work often failed to challenge the institutions that young Germans saw as responsible for the events of the war. It was in the early 1970s that the most vital voices in the country came forward. You likely know some of their names: Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Wim Wenders. Others you probably do not. For April, I’ll be looking at some of the essential movies in this movement where the film served as a way to comment on a society existing in shock. 

Werner Herzog, born Werner Stipetić, is arguably the most well-known German director ever. He even had a small role in season one of The Mandalorian. That was entirely unexpected. French filmmaker Francois Truffaut claimed Herzog was “the most important film director alive,” citing that the German had never made a movie he had compromised his vision on. Every movie is what Herzog wanted it to be, regardless of whether critics or audiences appreciated it. From the age of seventeen, Herzog wanted to make movies, but it would take until he was thirty years old for his work to be received by a larger audience. The work that broke through was Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

Christmas Day 1560 finds several Spanish conquistadors and their numerous native slaves descending from conquering the Incas in the Andes Mountains. They decide their next expedition should be to search for El Dorado, rumored to be in the east. Led by Pizarro, they spend a week wading through the dense, muddy jungle until they reach the banks of a river. Pizarro orders forty men to take a raft downriver to scout ahead with the caveat that they will be considered lost if they do not return in a week, and the rest of the group will move on. Don de Ursua is put in charge, with his second-in-command being Don Aguirre (Klaus Kinski). The scouting party encounters numerous physical obstacles and resistance from the native people as the sanity of the expedition degrades. The soldiers turn on each other, and it becomes clear quickly that El Dorado will remain the elusive myth it always has been.

While it may not be the case when we get to Fitzcarraldo at the end of this series, for Aguirre, Klaus Kinski is not behaving like the madman he has become notorious for being. The character of Aguirre is a person slipping into delusion but is doing so quietly and subtly. There is shared DNA between this film and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in their central figures. Aguirre & Kurtz are parallels in that through the experience of imposing imperialism on foreign land, they discover that the people who inhabit these regions and the land itself are beyond the understanding of the invaders. The invaders have a rigid paradigm of knowledge, so they try to stamp out indigenous traditions. The unknown is terrifying, something Herzog would definitely agree with. When, in their hubris, humanity takes it upon itself to “conquer” the land, they will inevitably learn that nature is always a more powerful force, coldly neutral in its destructive power, reducing you to corpses and then using those dead bodies to grow more of itself. The more humans consume the Earth, the fewer humans and, ultimately, the less Earth there will be. The more the Earth consumes, the more it is reborn; the cycles of life & death keep things going in a way that man’s artifice cannot.

Herzog pulls off cinematic magic throughout the picture, shooting it like a documentary, letting the handheld cameras get right in the faces of his characters. He doesn’t shy away from showing the incompetence of these armored Spaniards hacking their way through the jungle or beating down their slaves. They are not the bold, brave conquerors of Western textbook propaganda but selfish, greedy buffoons prone to temper tantrums and madness. Herzog can contemplate the multi-faceted beauty & horror that live side-by-side in the natural world, which requires man to become savage, let go of his decorum and embrace the raw survival of the landscape. He asks the audience what they think is worse: the savage nature of living a wild existence in harmony with nature or the delusional greed of gold-hungry morons?

The themes that will reach across all of Herzog’s work are wonderfully laid out here. Man is an arrogant animal whose complex brain, though capable of incredible feats, ultimately pales compared to the raw force of creation. Nature does not need to be clever because it encompasses all. The way humans approach their relationship with the natural world is broken from the start. They see it as a thing to be tamed rather than a force that must be endured and that we must find ways to live in harmony. For the species to believe they can negate the forces that dominate the planet and not bring about their own extinction is about a perfect definition of hubris you could find. This is emphasized in the conditions that ultimately break Aguirre’s scouting party and the tedious slowness of decline. Nature can smear you across the ground with a tornado, but it can also slowly whittle away at you, degrading your body and sanity. 

You might be surprised when watching Aguirre that the title character gets little screen time. I think the subtitle The Wrath of God works better as the main title of the picture. While Aguirre becomes more critical to the story as time passes, the film isn’t about him. This is also a picture that will feel tedious, it is a European art-house film, and the pace of these kinds of movies is working in a different sphere than the American plot-heavy variety. Like the men on the raft, you are being worn down as an audience member. Herzog builds up an adversarial relationship with his audience, teasing them that an emotional outburst is coming only to diffuse the situation immediately. We are never allowed to be satisfied because we’re the conquistadors. This is a quest for something that isn’t real, ultimately.

The lesson learned in the picture’s finale is not that Aguirre is a madman but that he is the only one who truly understands this New World. To survive here, you must become someone else than you are back in Europe. Aguirre realizes the chaotic mind he’s held inside him all his life is at home in the violent environs of South America. His fellow travelers keep trying to stick to the conventions and pecking order back home. Just because you are on top back in a country no one knows they’ll ever see again means nothing here. The longer you try to adhere to the rules in a place that operates on an entirely new set of them, the more absurd & insane you look. Ultimately, it is Aguirre, at one-ness with the harsh reality of this world. His last connection to humanity is gone in our final scene, and he becomes surrounded by curious monkeys that have crawled out of the jungle. He is a man returning to the truth of his animal nature.


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