Jun 8, 2013
Shot on a 35mm film camera Bavarian auteur Werner Herzog stole from a Munich film school, and based on a screenplay the director wrote in a mere 2 ½ days after reading a book he borrowed from a friend about historical adventurers, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) aka Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes is oftentimes considered one of the greatest films of German New Cinema, as well as film history in general, even making Time magazine’s “All Time 100 Best Films,” yet I have never felt it was nearly as interesting as the director’s more idiosyncratic non-period pieces like Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) and Stroszek (1977), and I am certainly not the only person. My girlfriend, who also enjoys much of Herzog’s work, tried in vain to watch Aguirre, the Wrath of God twice, ultimately concluding “This is a poorly put together period piece about a bunch of assorted, boorish redneck seeming guys and noble non-whites fucking around doing nonsensical shit in a jungle,” which is hard to deny for anyone who has tried to watching the film in a mere sitting. Featuring an atmospheric soundtrack by Herzog's favorite German krautrock band Popol Vuh, and a cast comprised of effete, obese adventurers with mullets, mulatto slave philosophers, and other curiously racially mongrelized characters, Aguirre, the Wrath of God certainly has a somewhat anachronistic feel and its pacifistic anti-colonist counter-culture message only makes it feel all the more dated as a work of its time. Even so, Herzog still must be commended for becoming a fierce Faustian adventurer auteur for shooting on location in the Peruvian rainforest on the Amazon River during a clearly hectic five-week period utilizing a meager budget of $370,000 (a third of which paid for deranged star Klaus Kinski’s salary). An imperative influence on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), as well as the films of the Italian exploitation subgenre, including Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Cannibal Ferox (1981), Aguirre, the Wrath of God, whether one enjoys it or not, is an undeniably important and groundbreaking work of film history. Although based on the real-life 16th century Spanish Basque Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre, a minor official who inevitably mutinied and become the murderous megalomaniac leader of an expedition to find the mythical El Dorado (“Lost City of Gold”), Herzog has admitted virtually all of Aguirre, the Wrath of God is based on his fabrications and throughout the film it certainly shows as an anti-“bergfilme” (“mountain film”) in the anarcho-mystical spirit of Herbert Achternbusch (whose original story Herzog later adapted into the 1976 work Heart of Glass) minus the humor that replaces uncompromising Aryan mysticism of movie mountaineer works by filmmakers like Leni Riefenstahl and Arnold Fanck with a sort of negating nihilism and negativity that associates Occidental man’s will-to-power and instinct to conquer as something akin to demonic possession, hence why the director cast his self-described “best fiend” Herr Kinski, a man he once described as having a “great demonic intensity,” in the lead role.
The year is 1650 and a brutal band of Spanish conquistadors, who have just wasted a bunch of Inca Indians and their backward empire and have taken a number as injun slaves, are marching down the Andes mountains en route to the mythical El Dorado in search of gold under the leadership of commander Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés). For whatever reason, in spite of rampant obesity among the troupe's members, and the unimaginably oppressive heat and humidity of the tropical climate, it seems inexplicably sensible for the conquistadors to wear heavy armor, including chain mail and helmets, and to haul around canons, horses, and dainty women down the thickly forested mountains and through turbulent rivers. Although originally being comprised of a thousand men, Pizarro concludes that it will be much easier to send a party of forty men down the river in four rafts, including Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) as the commander, Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as his second-in-command, grotesquely overweight aristocrat Don Fernando de Guzmán (Fassbinder actor Peter Berling) representing The Royal House of Spain, and corrupt Catholic brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) as a record keeper who keeps a matter-of-fact diary of the trip. Although Pizarro has enough common sense to argue against it, Ursúa's mistress, Doña Inéz (Helena Rojo) and Aguirre's young daughter, Florés (Cecilia Rivera, in her first and only film role, which is no surprise as a master of monotone expression) also go on the expedition in search of the “Lost City of Gold.” Not long after starting their expedition, one of the rafts is lost in a wicked whirlpool and is never found, while the entire group on another raft is mysteriously exterminated at night by what is probably a naked army of wild savages. A Catholic ‘true believer,’ Ursúa argues that the dead men should be given proper Christian burials, but Aguirre understands the bigger picture and realizes such a superstitious act will only waste more time so he fires a cannon at the raft of dead inquisitors thus finishing the conquistador corpses for good and everyone goes on their merry way. Naturally, everything goes to hell on the trip, including the destruction of the remaining rafts and the disappearing of supplies, so Ursúa orders the men to give up on their expedition and go back to the main group, which propels the power-hungry Aguirre to declare mutiny against the leader. Ultimately, Ursúa and loyal soldier are shot and Aguirre talks the rest of the men into electing fat ass aristocrat Don Fernando de Guzman—a debauched degenerate who eats large feasts while his men starve around him—as the leader and even declares him “Emperor in the New World.” Ursúa is given a bolshevik-style show trial, but lardo wuss Fernando offers the fallen leader mercy. Aguirre becomes a fanatical proto-fascist leader who kills everyone that disagrees with him, aside from Ursúa’s mistress Inéz, who has the soldier’s sympathy. The insanity of the Catholic church is also displayed when the monk of the raft orders an Indian and his wife be killed for the blasphemous acting of claiming that the bible “doesn’t talk” (in reference to the brother’s remark that it is “the word of god”). Starving to death and suffering from hallucinations, someone kills fat fuck Fernando for being a glutton via strangulation, thus Aguirre proclaims himself the Führer and finally has Ursúa executed via jungle lynching as his first act as raft king. Not long after, the starving Spainards and their equally emaciated minions burn down an Indian village but tons of their men also die in the process after natives shoot them down with arrows and Inéz, clearly distraught by her man’s death, disappears into the woods for eternity. Aguirre also decapitates a traitor who whispers he rather “join the Indians” than fight him for him and magically the head without a body speaks upon hitting the ground. After seeing an eerie premonition in the form a ship smashed to bits in a tree, the Indians launch a rainforest Blitzkrieg that kills all the remaining inquisitors, except Aguirre, who is even more of megalomaniac and valiantly declares to a group of tiny monkies, “I, the Wrath of God…will marry my own daughter…and with her I will found the purest dynasty…the earth has ever seen…together…we shall rule this entire continent…We will endure…I am the Wrath of God…Who else is with me?”
An extremely minimalistic micro-epic celluloid work with a good percentage of unrehearsed and improvised scenes (one of which resulting in the continuity error of a rather blatant appearance from Herzog’s hand), Aguirre, the Wrath of God owes most of its cinematic potency due to real-life psychopath Klaus Kinski portraying a “true homicidal megalomaniac,” as well as mountain man Werner Herzog’s daring utilization of the Amazon river and its surroundings, thus lending a certain ‘authenticity’ to the film that not a single Hollywood film has. One must also give Herzog credit for threatening to kill Kinski and then turn the gun on himself after the demented Polish-German actor threatened to quit the production of Aguirre, the Wrath of God as the average Hollywood director would probably quit working a production due to the positively terrible threat of bad food catering or a minor monetary return. Undoubtedly, an allegorical depiction of Werner Herzog’s thoughts on Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich in its hallucinatory depiction of a monomaniac of a mad man who manages to bring his people to total ruin as savages from every angle attack them on their raft, Aguirre, the Wrath of God is assuredly the director’s greatest expression of his own ethno-masochism, which would take on more patently pathetic forms in his stupendously stupid and sentimental anti-Nazi flick Invincible (2001) and his rather absurdly groveling vocal support of Steven “the showman of the shoah” Spielberg. Unfortunately, while Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a film that I would love to love, it has grown on me very little over the past decade or so when I first saw it, yet Herzog films like Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) and Stroszek (1977) have only become all the more important for me. Its now rather redundant and curiously cliché message of “colonialism = evil” and “savages = noble” only strips the celluloid work of its authenticity and integrity because, after all, you would never see one of the Indians featured in Aguirre, the Wrath of God directing a film about how their ancestors were cannibals that practiced sick sexual ritual, as ethno-masochism seems to be a distinctly European affliction. Considering Herzog was born “Werner Herzog Stipetić” to a Slavic Croatian mother (an untermensch in National Socialist eyes) and a German father he despised as he abandoned his family, his hatred of Nazism seems more visceral and personal than that of his celluloid compatriots in German New Cinema, especially considering he is a less political and intellectual filmmaker who never exhibited the sort of pedantic leftist politics of quasi-Marxist types like Alexander Kluge and Helma Sanders-Brahms. A horribly humorless indictment of the ‘evils’ of European colonialism and the Catholic church, Aguirre, the Wrath of God is celluloid cuckoldry at its finest and most esoteric, thus putting it miles away from the pop-Frankfurt school swill of Herzog's self-loathing kraut contemporaries, but also leaving it with the undeniable stench of slave-morality senselessness from a man with enough testicular fortitude to climb mountains and travel down rivers to direct films yet inexplicably ashamed of the fact that his ancestor’s conquered the world and did it with great gusto. Indeed, while I consider colonialism to be one of the worst decisions Faustian man ever made as it has inevitably resulted in his own indigenous nations transforming into multicultural third worlds with the degenerating phenomenon of miscegenation, among countless other ungodly things, there is no need to cry over spilled Incan blood as Herr Herzog does in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a film where the director displayed his solidarity with the savage cause by literally casting a mentally retarded Indian playing a toy-like musical instrument in a rather noticeable role as Kinski’s pet injun.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 10:19 PM
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