Aguirre, the Wrath of God
“My total being is one large breeding ground for the shocks of the world. The entire universe pours into me, rages in me, rampages through me and over me. I wish I’d never been an actor! I wish I’d never had success! I’d rather have been a street walker selling my body, then selling my tears and my laughter, my grief and my joy.” – Klaus Kinski
What manic and fascinating creature! The quote above was lifted from the biography extra on the DVD feature of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God“ (1972), uttered by the man who plays its central character, his face brazen with wide-set eyes and thick lips, simultaneously primitive and extraterrestrial.
Aguirre is a masterpiece amongst film zealots, and a peculiar vision, likely, to the mass public. This film was not made to entertain or to please others, but then again, that has never been Werner Herzog‘s purpose or forte. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the entertainment power a film holds and when done well, it acts as a much needed social antidote to the stress of daily living - an important instrument. But more than that, I believe in the power of film to act as a mirror of the human condition, a window to look in to or gaze out from the physical dimensions of our lives.
This the greatest show on earth, and it would be a shame to leave it running unrecorded.
I’m not going to go into details of the technical description of the film, plots, names, etc. Roger Ebert wrote a thorough and insightful review that leaves nothing more to be added in this respect. Aguirre is the third Herzog movie I saw, the other two being “Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call New Orleans” and “My son my son, what have ye done”, which left me in internal turmoil for a long time after seeing them at TIFF last month. I still can’t bring myself to write about them. No other director has left me in such agony before. No matter how the movie made me feel, I always understood it. By that I mean I saw it clearly, its intentions and desires, purpose and effect. I may react differently than its intended artistic vision, but at least I was always aware of what that vision was. Herzog left no such prints to be followed. His vision is that entirely of his own, and like the sighting of a rare animal, we stagger along, curious and careful, trying to catch a glimpse of the beauty of its sheer existence, inexplicably moved in our pursuit.
The man reminds me of a rare bird near extinction for reasons I can hardly comprehend. Except he is said to walk so much, maybe an earthly creature is more suitable? But his ideas are so grandiose and his visions so lofty, that somehow only the freedom of the sky seems an appropriate canvas for the paths of his explorations.
In Aguirre, Herzog ventures into the Peruvian amazon in 1560, where an expedition sets out in search of El Dorado, the fabled city of gold. Such a story would naturally be about survival, except Herzog doesn’t seem to even bother with that. He factors it into the plot of the story: they make rafts when they need to, they eat when they are hungry, they fight back when attacked. But all these are done with an air of almost bothersomeness, as if they are only necessary to allow the men to carry on the path of rightousness to fulfill their personal legend. And yes, the plot does pale in comparison to the obsession that pulls the entire film along like a dark twisted rope, a siren’s call from sea. Aguirre, a volatile man with little regard for the value of human lives, instigates a coup and takes charge of a small group of about 20 men and two women. Along with them is a priest holding the holy book. Together Aguirre believes that they are destined to find the fabled city of gold and he will with his daughter found the purest empire under the sun. Obsession mixed with delusion and the lure of power make a potent liquor of blind courage and sheer madness.
Aguirre stands above a flat raft roughly built from sticks of logs. He stalks amongst the men on the raft at a slow and deliberate pace, like a wolf declaring his authority amongst his pack, as they drift, drift down the Amazon river, across lands that they don’t know, heading into a horizon that they’ve never seen. Yet they blindly drift forward, convinced that a kingdom of glory awaits at its end. Except the river never ends….and so they drift on, and on, and on, into the heart of their own dark, dark obsession of wealth.
Money, the root of all evil.
Too bad it’s so fragile and volatile an item – it’s printed on paper, which can be destroyed in a number of ways by an endless number of elements. Its different forms require exchanges when travelling from one destination to another. It can devalue overnight. It carries no meaning of its own, and can only be used when in possession of it. It is easily recognizable and therefore always a target for theft. We guard it when we use it. We guard it when we don’t use it. We guard it all the time. And then when they are gone we want more.
Gold, the most ancient currency of wealth, is not as fragile, but equally seductive. In fact it takes on an almost mythical quality, its lustre said to be protective in many legends. People wear it as jewellery, as symbols of their status and happiness. Alchemists tried to convert metals into gold. No one told them that nothing in the world is free. If it is what would be the point of living?
But I digress. Aguirre was not wholly after wealth. He believed he was destined to be more than he was, which was a mere man. He believed that he was destined to be god of his own empire. How he came to this notion is not known, but it does not matter, for his madness, once alive, is a self-perpetuating virus that spread like a plague, swallowing up not only him, but all those around him. They were not as mad as him though, and toward the end of their lives they started to slip back into reality. By then it was too late, the river does not flow backwards, and men must heed the consequences of their actions.
The last shot of the film…with Aguirre stalking the raft still, alone, half crippled, amidst a swarm of wild monkies and dead bodies, while the camera swivels around and around, taking it all in from every angle, and we see truly how alone this man is, and how deeply into the abyss of insanity he has sunk, and how far the river stretches, and how unflenching nature is, and how still time is, and how despairing humanity can be, and we can’t help but be moved. And finally, we start to understand why.
Perhaps more than money, the wrath of men is truly the root of all evil. Our human impulse to be more than that we are is the current in the ocean of the universe, and our lives are little boats sailing through it, and just as the water forms us, feeds us, cleanse us…it also bury us. Our lives lie in the hands of our own wrath, and yet we can not control the wrath that consumes us.