Klaus Kinski (middle) as Aguirre.
Words by Yazen Al Samen
Werner Herzog’s view on nature is sad, unforgiving and cruel. He is among the visionaries of cinema, obsessed with the idea of death and the struggle to live. Few filmmakers have been able to depict life with such spirituality (Terrance Malick is another). His characters are usually mad, restrained by an unfathomable power. His visions have not been confined to everyday life; he has gone and sought the bigger picture, to capture the futility of existence.
“Aguirre, The Wrath Of God” (1972) is about a doomed expedition of Spanish soldiers, deep into the Amazon circa 1560, led by the mutinous Don Lope De Aguirre (Klaus Kinski). This was Herzog’s first collaboration with Kinski, in what proved to be one the most turbulent yet fascinating partnerships between director and actor.
They made 6 films together, all masterpieces in my view. Kinski apparently wanted the Aguirre character to be a ranting, rambling maniac yet Herzog insisted that he be a calm, sort of calculating character. It’s hard to disagree that it worked better that way, because Herzog’s film is not about Aguirre himself, but about what surrounds him and his expedition and how they are influenced by it.
The film starts with a sequence in which the Spanish soldiers cross a mountainous path, surrounded by clouds and fog, with the music of German band Popul Veh. (Popul Veh used a special instrument like an organ that can mimic a choir signing.) It has such melancholy and almost spiritual feel. It sets the notion for the rest of the film, a story of men driven mad by the mystery of the jungle, perplexed by its hostility and instinctly try to defy it.
I have never seen death depicted in movies like it is here, it’s silent, calm, coming out of nowhere. The Indians of the forest are almost like ghosts, hidden away in god’s ungodly creation. By creating this movie, Herzog has transcended a human dilemma into the screen, simply showing how nature is unforgiving and harsh against man and all other creatures. And in the middle of all this, we see Aguirre slip more and more into madness, unable to understand the mystery, the power of nature and in the end his own helplessness. A haunting closing sequence sees his expedition come to a tragic end where he is crowded by monkeys and bursts into a long speech about his greatness just reaffirms that futility.
To conclude, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, like all great films, works by showing the people perceptively. The faces of the characters in this film are unforgettable. Dirty, scared, confused, hungry. Herzog plunges them into his own wicked mind. He filmed on location deep in the Peruvian jungle, driven by that same mystery that maddened Aguirre. Herzog is probably a mad man himself. Most of the dialogue is improvised by the actors or Herzog himself on the spot. It’s not his intention to devise a plot, but to work on our minds with images and sounds.
Very few films can make you feel God or nature or whatever you want to call it, “Aguirre” is one of them.