Classic Review: Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

What a great treachery that will be!

This review contains spoilers. It is advised that you watch the film before reading this review. 

 In his made-for-TV documentary Wings of Hope, Werner Herzog details the account of Juliane Koepcke, soul survivor of the 1971 LANSA Flight 508 – an aircraft carrying 92 passengers that broke up mid-flight after a lightening strike over the Peruvian jungle. Juliane plummeted 3 kilometres, still strapped to her chair, and came to land amongst the dense rainforest with only a broken collar bone, swollen eye and a gash across her arm. She survived for 9 days in the harsh terrain, relying on survival tactics taught to her by her father – including pouring gasoline found with a moored boat on the maggots infesting her arm (insects prevented her from sleeping even once during the ordeal) – before finding civilisation. Herzog, scouting locations for his film Aguirre, Wrath of God, was due to board the very same flight before last minute travel changes likely saved his life; and so began the endlessly fascinating, frequently perilous and wholly idiosyncratic story of making Aguirre.

After borrowing a book on historical adventurers from a friend, Herzog feverishly wrote the script for Aguirre in just two and a half days, inspired by various historical figures, especially Lope De Aguirre, a Spanish conquistador who led a mutiny in the mid-sixteenth century in South America. The finished film uses other historical figures, among fictional characters, in a story inspired by real events that is ultimately untrue (historians however have pointed out how accurate some of the events and figures are).

We follow the film through the diary of Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, who travels with the Spanish expedition through the Amazon jungle with the aim of bringing the word of God to the natives. Some one hundred Indian slaves follow them; carrying resources, weaponry, livestock and sedan chairs the women who travel with them sit in. As the year 1560 draws to a close, commander Gonzalo Pizarro, low on supplies and moral, decides to have the group retreat back to land ‘occupied by Christians’, leaving forty carefully selected men to scout ahead down river in search of the fabled El Dorado (a falsehood, we know from the beginning of the film, the men will never find it). What follows is a Conradian nightmare, a folly into inhospitable territory that brings nothing but hunger and death – and film that is impossibly influential yet remains a singular work without equal.

First led by Don Pedro de Ursúa, the group must fend off the aggressive rapids and jungle terrain as well as the natives (and ensuing culture shock) and their silent, fatal arrows that seem to appear from thin air. Herzog has little interest in action sequences – these moments only serve make apparent the continued misfortune of the scout party – misfortune enough for Ursúa who deems the journey too perilous, only to be overthrown by second-in-command Aguirre. Aguirre promises untold riches and a mutiny against Spain that will allow them to claim the continent for themselves. Right-hand-man Perucho commits treacherous acts for Aguirre while flatly enunciating ‘la la la la’ – reminding me of the whistling murderer Hans Beckert in another German masterpiece M.

A faux Emperor, fat lazy ‘Nobleman’ Don Fernando de Guzman is crowned by vote at Aguirre’s suggestion. The men hesitate to put their hands up, but all slowly do; who wouldn’t with the mad, wide-eyed Aguirre staring them down? Herzog says that the moment he met Klaus Kinski, he knew he was destined to make films and Kinski to star in them. Aguirre was the first of many directed with the oft-described volatile Kinski, perhaps the scariest, most unhinged actor to ever live. Many of the films most mythical stories centre on Kinski; in one such story, he fired a weapon at other actors and crewmembers in an adjacent tent for being too loud at night (one of them lost the tip of a finger). In another (somewhat sensationalized according to Herzog), he attempted to leave the production until Herzog pointed a gun at him and threatened to shoot the both of them. In an on-screen moment of madness, he hits another over the head with a sword, leaving a dent in his helmet – a helmet that probably saved the actor’s life.

Kinski’s mad portrayal, initially wildly over the top; was made icier, more exhausted as Herzog tired him with each take for desired effect. It is no less stylized though, as Aguirre spirals in and out of each masterful hand-held shot with his bizarre crab-like walk. Herzog notes how he seems held together by a multitude of leather straps and apparatus, as if he would come undone without them. Surprisingly Aguirre is rarely on screen, his presence persists though; he is the catalyst for much of the misfortune that befalls the men. With every bend in the river – the men on their makeshift rafts – Aguirre becomes more confident in his godlike power. The other actor’s faces betray genuine fear in almost every scene he inhabits; some of his on-screen aggression looks scarily real. It is no surprise that when Perucho asks the men to vote to keep him second-in-command behind Guzman, their hands rise sharply, not just through fear but because they know he is the most competent and driven of everyone.

Guzman cries with joy at the absurd notion that he owns the surrounding land simply by passing through. Herzog shows with amusement, Guzman’s pitiful attempt at justice with a farcical trial that concludes with the hanging of Ursúa for supposed conspiracy. Guzman’s reign is a mere façade, as Aguirre is better able to influence people and events from behind the scenes.

Herzog is perhaps as madly confident and abrasive as both Kinski and Aguirre. He is the right man to direct this film, having stolen a 35mm camera from the Munich Institute for Film Research, an act he doesn’t consider theft (he says he had a right for a camera). Had he not done this, the films he shot with it (this one among nine others) would not exist.

The direction and craftsmanship of Aguirre makes it endlessly fascinating and enduring. The plot is minimalist as is the dialogue, much of which was written not ten minutes before shooting. Herzog is more interested in ideas, stories and events rather than snappy dialogue though what is said is frequently epigrammatic. Believing storyboarding a restrictive Hollywood method (except when plotting expensive digital effects), Werner instead improvised his direction. The decent into the jungle and into the mad minds on screen is mirrored in Herzog’s crew and the actors themselves. For five weeks, they actually lived on rafts and infrequent riverbanks in the Peruvian jungle and even used the makeshift toilet on-board the conquistador’s raft. The haunting opening sequence following hundreds of extras down an impossibly steep, jagged Amazonian mountain is real and dangerous. The actors really reside on the rafts during the vicious rapids. A scene where the canopy of the crew’s final raft is heavily damaged by a tree is also real, and unplanned. Herzog’s film, like the victims of the expedition, is at the whims of nature. An eddy discovered by the film crew leads to a brilliant scene where a trapped raft circles indefinitely until the passengers are mysteriously killed. The river, flooded one night, destroying the rafts, meant Herzog had to include the event in the story. Aguirre coldly pulls a drowned slave from the water, just for the iron chains around his arms, needed to make a replacement. Sometimes the crew would get into arguments and fight. On the commentary, Herzog states he would have more troublesome actors killed off so they could leave the production. Improvisation like this made Herzog a maverick, and his film alive. We see a cannibalistic mouse on board, and a butterfly land on one of the conquistadors. Shot like a documentary, it is as if Wrath of God predates the invention of cameras.

On-screen events and dire situations are made all the more present by the knowledge that much of what happened on screen is real. Herzog even shot actors without their knowledge and they sometimes notice and look directly into the camera. This idiosyncratic production is fascinating and infinitely re-watchable, perhaps giving director Terrence Malick his own naturalistic directing style found in films like The Thin Red Line and oft-underrated The New World. The jungle is stunning and the mutiny more audacious as we understand Herzog took his crew through the winding Amazon, past the towering mountains and into the flat swampland for his film, much like Aguirre for power.

The atmosphere, initially dreamlike thanks to the ethereal Popol Vuh soundtrack, turns hallucinatory as the conquistador’s conditions become abysmal. They count corn and eat algae from the raft as their pig-like emperor eats fresh fish and vegetables. He’ll soon be killed suggests Brother Gaspar; the horse Guzman forces from the raft could’ve fed the men for a week. Gaspar is no saint however; even he is led by greed and shortsightedness. He refuses to help Inez, when her husband Ursúa is wounded – ‘you know, my child, for the good of our Lord, the Church was always on the side of the strong’. He murders natives who literally put the bible to their ears and claim they cannot hear the word of God. Okello, the black slave on the expedition, is more philosophical and open-minded than Gaspar claims to be (he also has some of the more lighthearted, funny dialogue in the film).

The documentarian moments serve to make the surreal exploits stranger. Herzog notes in the audio commentary how he takes advantage of the medium. The two women on board, Inez and Aguirre’s daughter (whom he seems to have an incestuous relationship with) avoid the physical deteriorations of the men. Their dresses, hair and bodies untouched by the wilderness. How is unclear. It serves Herzog’s myth. Inez is perhaps the most tragic character; when her husband dies, Herzog only shows her stoically from behind. It makes her feelings more apparent than any direct crying scene. She later walks into the jungle, abandoning the crew. What happens to her is an enigma.

The violence too, is shot without emotion. Characters die in silence, quickly, painfully and without much fight. They are not granted emotional exorcisms.

It is impossible to pinpoint the moment the mutiny dissolves into madness but the scene involving a large boat and attached canoe hanging impossibly high in a tree doesn’t feel out of place late in the film. Okello realises he has gone mad, suggesting the men imagine the arrows because they fear them. He doesn’t realise how mad and exhausted they all are. Another character speaks briefly even after his head has been cut off as the film becomes unreal. Which reminds me of how effective the special effects are, despite the meagre $370,000 budget (a third of which went to Kinski’s salary).

For all its’ improvisation, Wrath of God is a taut Shakespearian epic of just 93 minutes. New discoveries imbue every re-watch and the ending sequence cannot be understated. The camera carefully driven around by Herzog in a motorboat, floats beautifully surrounding the dilapidated raft, all inhabitants dead except Aguirre. Aguirre – seemingly invincible and god-like, much like The Judge in Cormac McCarthy’s western novel Blood Meridian – is destined for an eternity aboard the vessel, lord of the monkeys. The Amazon feels impossibly huge, perhaps endless, as it would to the conquistadors of the era.

We drift and we drift, Aguirre, Wrath of God doesn’t end with the credits.


Image Via Time Out


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