Aguirre, the wrath of God – “A masterpiece of madness”
“I like it a lot,” Werner Herzog muses about nature, “but I love it against my better judgment. Herzog, a pioneer of German New Wave cinema, seems a reluctant romantic. Aguirre, the wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes) follows a 16th century expedition of Spanish conquistadors and their search for the mythical El Dorado. The narration is loosely taken from the diary of a Dominican missionary, Carvajal. Klaus Kinski stars as the maniac and disgruntled Aguirre, who takes the de facto leadership on a scouting mission. Determined to find El Dorado, Aguirre leads the group deeper and deeper into the Amazon River, determined to make his name history. Fortune and madness are always incredibly close. Herzog creates a historical drama responding to a Shakespearean ambition.
“Aguirre understands both their hollows and how to exploit them”
In the opening, we float above the Andes. We watch the conquistadors take them down, returning from the conquest of the Inca Empire. This majestic and imperialist feeling is quickly broken. Herzog moves on to the handheld filming, at the expedition’s feet, showing the chaos as water and mud splatter the camera lens.
Pompous clothes, huge cars, decorative idols of the Virgin Mary. All these signifiers of the identity and of the European, colonizing ideology, carried by the expedition, become more and more impractical and unbearable in the Peruvian jungle. Aguirre understands both their emptiness and how to exploit them. Seizing the de facto leadership of a separate party in the expedition, he made Guzman a comically inept nobleman, monarch, declaring under his name their rebellion against the Spanish crown. In a mock coronation ceremony in which Guzman anxiously ponders his legitimacy, Aguirre mutters with corrosive cynicism: “What is a throne if not a velvet-covered plank – your majesty.” Aguirre both exploits and deconstructs the symbols on which European colonial ideology relies to satisfy its own megalomania.
In turn, the quest for the Untraceable Eldorado turns out to be a projection of fantasy. The “city of gold” is only a colonial wet dream with infinite riches to be seized. The counterpoint is the nightmare of the “hostile Indians” hidden in the jungle that permeates the angst of the film.
The self-theatricalization of Aguirre is at the heart of the film. The raft becomes for him a scene of which he is the only hero. Kinski sports an unforgettable pose throughout the film, resembling an exaggerated old actor. In a typical Shakespearean play metaphor, Aguirre states:
‘We will control all of New Spain and make history like others do theater. I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter. With her, I will found the purest dynasty the earth has ever seen.
At the end of the false coronation, Herzog passes away. The image is held like that of a painting recording a historical event. The theatrical and historical actors are frozen and Aguirre looks at us through the lens – voyeurs of art and history. This verfremdungseffekt raises awareness of how the formation of history and theater are interconnected. Both become games.
“The film seems an anti-epic: a journey that never comes home and is re-consumed by nature”
However, this fusion of history and theater becomes the fall of Aguirre. By the climax, he is the only man still alive on the raft. Aguirre’s last rhetorical question “who else is with me?” Literally falls on deaf ears. Herzog harnesses a circular motion of the camera in these final moments, as she circles the raft like a gyre, creating a hypnotic, gyrating rhythm. A final repudiation of the fantasized linear journey to El Dorado. Herzog describes it as a “wildly mad, totally brave jungle fever dream”. Madness and courage are certainly here skillfully balanced. There is something both tragic and dark comedic as we finally see Aguirre floating on the Amazon, the only one still alive, still fuming over his fame and glory to come in his utter solipsistic delirium.
The opening quote for this article is part of Herzog’s larger speech from a documentary Burden of dreams: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xQyQnXrLb0. Nature, for Herzog, is obscene, chaos, misery, low, made of anger, an article of baseness, “the harmony of crushing and collective murder”. There is also a philosophical depth to these lines which relates to Aguirre thematically. Compared to nature, we look like “a cheap suburban novel”. Herzog’s message is that we need to familiarize ourselves with the unceremonious chaos of nature. Rather than giving in to a romantic view of the affinity between nature and “man” in modernity, Herzog sees the dynamic between “man” and nature as something of humility. In all of our civilized attempts to produce and transmit the Apollonian order, we are inevitably consumed by our natural baseness – like Aguirre.
Herzog said in an interview that “cinema expresses our collective dreams more than any other medium”. There is certainly a part of all of us in Aguirre’s pride, his madness, his futility. Aguirre is often considered an “epic movie”. Yet, in light of Herzog’s monologue on the jungle, the film appears like an anti-epic: a journey that never returns home and is re-consumed by nature. As other critics have noted, in the context of German film history, Aguirre rejects the glorification of male heroism and domination over nature in Nazi-era cinema. The Aryan protagonist, Aguirre, is now laughable in his delusional megalomania.
As Herzog heads skyward in the final scene, Aguirre forever remains in our minds floating on the Amazon in search of glory. A perfect dissection of our stupid and futile human ambitions. by Werner Herzog Aguirre, the wrath of God is a crazy masterpiece of the German New Wave.
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