Movie # 98: Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Manly Footwear: my complaint about Blowup’s main character being an asshole and thus ruining the movie watching experience for me might need a bit of refining, since I love Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and the main character is an insane, murderous colonizer who soothes himself with visions of the incestuous empire he will found with his daughter. But Klaus Kinski’s Aguirre is not an asshole, he is evil, and evil is fascinating, whereas assholism is dull, not the least because assholes have neither the creativity nor the will to go all the way to the dark side. If Kinski’s Aguirre found a corpse in the park, as Thomas the photographer does in Blowup, he’d probably strip it naked and set it on fire so he could roast a lemur.

That Kinski overacts almost goes without saying: he never stands up straight once during the film, swaggering around like his spine had a pivot joint at its base, preventing his shoulders from ever coming full center, and he does so, for most of the movie, on a raft drifting down river. Even when he sits and broods, which he does a lot, he manages to overdo it, but it just makes sense, with regards to the character, but also within the tone and framing set by the director, Werner Herzog. The raft Aguirre swaggers around, for example, also holds a reed outhouse; a roof to keep the sun off Aguirre’s daughter; a large table on which the nobleman Don de Guzmán feasts while everyone else starves; a dozen or so soldiers, slaves, and a priest; and a horse. It’s a masterful tableaux of the madness inherent to the colonial enterprise, of a group of conquistadors clinging to the tatters of a civilization they are determined to bring to the “new” world. The final scene, with Kinski, the only one left alive, declaiming to a group of monkeys that have invaded the raft, is the logical culmination of this particular form of madness, and is hard to shake, equal parts violent pathos and a ridiculousness approaching slapstick.

So they drift down the river, slowly being annihilated, by the indios in the bushes along the shore, and by one another, in pursuit of El Dorado, the city of gold. I think most viewers of Aguirre would, at some point, imagine Francis Ford Coppolla studying the river journey frame by frame, since much of Apocalypse Now seems directly patterned after Herzog’s depiction. The fact that Herzog made Aguirre for only $360,000 (Apocalypse Now cost $31.5 million to make), and shot the whole thing on a single camera he claims to have stolen from a Munich film school, only underscores how remarkable the film is, and how creative boundaries, such as those imposed by a lack of resources, can force artists into creative solutions they might not have envisioned otherwise.

Comfortina Footwear: At an estate sale, we found 2 box sets of Wernor Herzog’s films in DVD format. While I knew his name, I didn’t really know who he was. It wasn’t until after watching Aguirre, the Wrath of God that I looked up more and realized I seen and loved several of his other films including one of the best and scariest vampire movies ever.

Klaus Kinski plays the lead character in the film with panache – even though the evolution of that character is like watching a car wreck in slow motion and being unable to look away.

Set in Peru and meant to depict explorers and would be conquerors from the 16th century, the film captured the dogged determination, pragmatism, and madness that comes from attempts to conquer the world. From the incredible opening shot of hundreds of people winding their way down narrow paths worn in the side of the mountain while carrying cannons, crates of chickens, and litters of women to the end of the film you can feel the eyes of others and hear their whispers.

Aguirre is the right hand of the Spanish nobleman leading the expedition and is tapped to be a part of a splinter group sent to find civilization and help when the food and health of the main expedition run low. What follows is a descent into madness that’s helped along by the harshness of the terrain. Not only have they set out on makeshift rafts into the rapids of a huge river, but everywhere on the shores lurk other dangers.

As Aguirre becomes more and more unhinged, his character seems unable to stand up straight but rather leans and lurches as the scenes progress. Power struggles of all kinds are presented – rich vs poor, church vs state, culture vs culture, man vs nature, and man vs man, each one presented as an amuse-bouche and then left to linger as the next scene unfolds.

The exploration of how each person bore the realization that the journey was doomed, and how they chose to meet that end, was beautifully illustrated by the actions of the consort of a nobleman who was executed after a mutiny.

The expedition went ashore where there was a native village set aflame, hoping to find food and water and just get off the unrelenting river. This desperate action happened after they’d passed a populated village where the inhabitants were running and yelling and trying to get to the shore – asked what the villagers were yelling, one of the native slaves replied “Meat is floating by”. And still they went ashore. The men ran through the village falling upon salt and fresh fruit with abandon while Aguirre raced after them shouting at them to leave the food and follow the path of conquerors. At this instant, they realized they were in a village of cannibals, and then the arrows started. As the men clambered to find safety, the consort, appearing freshly washed and in her finest gown walked determinedly through the village, through the men, through the arrows, and into the forest.

Watching this film, it was easy to see the influence it had on Apocalypse Now and why it’s been called a masterpiece by many.

After the film was done, I did watch the extras on the dvd which including an interview with Wernor Herzog about the film where he explained how it was shot with a camera stolen from film school, on location for 25 days with a cast of hundreds, for $360,000. He told of swimming across the river with the camera to be able to get the shots he wanted and that most of the scenes were shot in a single take. Knowing this makes it even more of a spectacular piece of art.

Vinnie From Queens: Most of the first half of the movie takes place on a wet beach and slimy pile of rocks. We watch a mutiny within a 16th Century Spanish jungle expedition. The chief mutineer is Aguirre (played by a convincingly insane looking Klaus Kinski). A nobleman (Guzman) is selected as emperor from the remaining expedition crew, and Aguirre places him on a throne (of sorts). A new nation is declared. Much expedition follows. Then those who have not yet been shot or knifed build an enormous raft, the size of a floating city block. They float down-river. To everyone’s misfortune, there are a number of interactions with native peoples, some of whom might be cannibals. Guzman becomes ever more erratic and vicious, inexplicable and dangerous like the deepening jungle around them (get it?). Someone kills Guzman, probably Aguirre. Aguirre anoints himself the undisguised leader of the increasingly desperate and almost-certainly doomed nation-building expedition.

Things go poorly. Aguirre’s relationship with his daughter (inexplicably, she is on this expedition) is explored a bit more and that it is uncomfortable. 

This film is lots of fun to watch. The characters are perverse and unpredictable. The surroundings are gorgeous and harsh. Maybe these are just the most talented supporting actors ever, but they certainly seem genuinely miserable and afraid.  

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but… What do the cannibals yell to each other as the expedition raft passes by their village? The German translation is ‘Fleisch kommt vorbei geschwommen’, which in English means ‘the meat is floating by.’