on 20 March 2005
Aguirre, the Wrath of God, is Herzog's ultimate jungle adventure, continuing on from the trancelike and hypnotic Fata Morgana and Signs of Life (which aren't necessarily jungle films, but do have a similar approach to the strange and the exotic), whilst simultaneously prefiguring the more traditional narratives of Fitzcaralldo and Cobra Verde. It also has certain similarities to Chris Marker's excellent film Sans Soliel, with the combination of mystical realism and otherworldly forces, alongside an almost documentary approach to the art of filmmaking. Like Marker's film, Herzog takes the viewer on a journey, not only into the Peruvian jungle, but also back in time, to the days of the Spanish conquistadors, and deep into the heart of darkness. He introduces us to a collection of characters that will be our guide throughout the film, but, despite this, we're never really allowed to learn anything about them. To Herzog, their personalities are unimportant... to him, the film is about something deeper; it's about greed, it's about brutality, it's about obsession, and ultimately, it's about the corruption of the human soul.
Right from the start we are captivated by the haunting and hypnotic mood that the filmmaker creates; with the film beginning on a close-up-detail of an enormous mountain peak, partially shrouded by mist. The evocative music of Popol Vuh then drifts in as our eyes focus on a small band of adventurers and their guides making their way down the side of the gigantic, monolithic rock... disappearing beyond the horizon, only to reappear on the other side. Here, as Herzog establishes the notion of nature as a symbolic obstacle or uncontrollable force, he also sets up a sense of eventual foreshadowing of that climactic image and the theme of man against nature. To reinforce these notions, Herzog makes his film as episodic as can be, with little explanation into events and little to drive the characters besides the wild-eyed obsession and ferocity of Aguirre himself. As with Fitzcaralldo and Cobra Verde, the film is driven by its central character - as opposed to being driven by plot - which works exceptionally well with Herzog's approach of stylised-documentary-drama, and of course, works even greater when personified by the manic Klaus Kinski. Here, Kinski's task is to instil Aguirre with an animal force and psychotic obsession... to push this band of weary soldiers down the river, with the promise of the ultimate reward in the shape of the city of gold.
For me, this is possibly Kinski's greatest performance (the emotional flip-side to his pained and sensitive turn in Herzog's other great film, Woyzeck), as he stalks the tiny raft - which becomes our main location - like a caged tiger, alternating between screaming, ferocious rants and moments of quiet contemplation that will eventually lead to a implied sense of complete self-destruction. Herzog's camera has an intruding intimacy about it that makes it impossible to imagine a film-crew actually standing around capturing this. It feels so real... like nothing has been staged. It also makes the drama all the more interesting, as characters die or break down, whilst Kinski just continues to scowl and grown through furrowed brow and clenched teeth... descending into madness with his eyes completely vacant. As the film moves towards it's inevitable climax, Herzog's direction becomes more and more surreal... like he's capturing some kind of fevered dream, as boundaries between fantasy and reality, truth and fiction, man and nature, all start breaking down. Throughout these closing sequences, Herzog offers up a number of images that define the style of Aguirre... whilst also lingering in our sub-conscious for months on end.
These images include a boat resting atop an enormous tree, a decapitated head that continues it's count from one to ten, a woman wandering into the jungle never to be seen again, and the butterflies that flutter and perch on the shoulders of the slave Okello, moments before he is shot through the heart with an arrow. Much of the violence of Aguirre is surreal, capturing that same fever dream ideology and happening at a point when the characters are at their most removed from reality. It also shows Herzog's talent in creating scenes of simplistic beauty from the most unexpected sources... tying in with the whole "shot-on-the-run" simplicity of the editing and cinematography, with the camera constantly roving from person to person, finding a composed moment of tranquilly before curiously pushing on. Unlike the work of his contemporaries (Fassbinder, Wenders, etc) Herzog is able to captivate his audience, not simply through narrative, but through the creation of a dense, dreamlike and hypnotic atmosphere and a character of immense, obsessive proportions. Aguirre, along with The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, is probably his ultimate masterpiece, a film that is constantly changing from one extreme to another, drawing you in, then pushing you away, making you want to go back and experience more and more of this landmark adventure.
For me, Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a film of monumental proportions... climaxing with a final shot that stands as one of the most breathtaking final images in European cinema, with that downward spiral managing to embody both the lunacy and obsession of the filmmakers and the fate of the ruined Aguirre. It is as much a testament to Kinski's brilliance, as it is to Herzog's, making this film (and the whole of the Herzog/Kinski box-set) an integral purchase.