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Aguirre, the Wrath of God

October 27, 2009


“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.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2009 4:37 PM

    Nice Site layout for your blog. I am looking forward to reading more from you.

    Tom Humes

  2. October 27, 2009 4:55 PM

    Excellent post about one of the greatest films. Herzog is one of my favorite directors along with David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s always nice to find others who appreciate Herzog. Incidentally, I came to Herzog’s films by way of Ebert a few years back, specifically his review(s) of Aguirre.

    Two other powerful, chilling images I wanted to add to this:

    1) The horse, after being kicked off the raft, watching us float away, and us watching it become consumed in the infinite vegetation.

    2) The large ship with tattered sails perched high in a tree as the men on the raft debate the nature of its being.

    Also, the music. Haunting stuff, as I believe Ebert points out in his review.

    After you’ve had time to process all this Herzog, I guess the next step from Aguirre would be Fitzcarraldo. Or you could watch some of his other stuff first before heading back into those dense jungles. But anyway, it’s amazing what Herzog was doing back then in the 70s and 80s with his mixing of both documentary and stylistic/staged elements together in such harmony — at least on screen. :)

    Grace: Yes and yes and yes. All your points occurred to me while watching the movie and somehow simply got lost when I started going on my rant. There are so much in this film. It all haunts me.

    • October 27, 2009 5:34 PM

      I wouldn’t characterize anything in your post as a rant. Your writing flows and transitions too smoothly.

      Also, I was listening to this band while reading this and it seemed to go together — the band and this blog (cinematic musings in their lyrics, especially New Medium and B-Film).

      Grace: I like them!

      They remind me of Stars, a Montreal Canadian band –, check out “Your Ex Lover is Dead”, wait for the female vocal part.

  3. October 27, 2009 5:04 PM

    Your words flow like the great river!

    This was the first of the six or eight Herzog movies I saw. The great green river! Aguirre, staring at the setting sun!

    Grace: which other ones did you see?

    • October 28, 2009 4:01 AM

      Fitzcarraido, Cobra Verde, Woyzeck, Enigma of Kasper Hauser; and Mein Liebster Feind is still waiting to be seen. All with Kinski. I was particularly dazzled by the African dances and songs in Cobra Verde–a whole different universe of culture.

      I’m sure he must be a great documentarian as he is reputed. I saw Last Year at Marienbad for a second time last night. What can one say of such a film except to enjoy the experience of being mesmerised.

      Regards and always look forward to your writings.

  4. reeltoreel permalink
    October 27, 2009 9:30 PM

    Aguirre is one of my favorite movies. It’s a strange movie to be a “favorite” but, as you said, it sits with you. Herzog has a way of reaching through his material and grasping you and pulling you in with him. Great review!

  5. October 28, 2009 3:04 AM

    Nice review! Herzog’s work on Aguirre is probably one of the most astonishing, arduous, spectacle ever put on film. And the fact that such a difficult film was made and Herzog’s vision remains untarnished–in fact, it is amplified through such toil–that it is possible that Aguirre is in the top five, perhaps top three films ever made. Period.

    Also, it’s the “love of money” that is the root of all evil, according to the Scriptures, as money itself is amoral. But you hit on the point–its lustre enslaves men, who are tabula rasas, on which the influences, both positive and negative, of money are written.

    By the way, Roger Ebert linked you on his twitter feed.

    Grace: “tabula rasas” – interesting choice of words.

  6. October 28, 2009 3:08 AM

    First Ebert, now you. Now I have to watch this other-worldly inspiration for great reviews. Which one of his movies would you suggest as a good starting point?

    Grace: I’ve only seen three so I’m not the best person to ask. But of the three Aguirre is where I would start.

  7. Sarah Nichols permalink
    October 28, 2009 4:30 AM

    Kinski had one of the greatest faces in all of cinema. I would recommend watching Herzog’s documentary about his collaborations, and his relationship with Kinski, My Best Fiend, and reading Herzog’s journal on the making of Fitzcarraldo, Conquest of the Useless.

    Grace: It is quite a face. I’m trying hard on catching up on my Herzogs.

  8. October 28, 2009 4:34 AM

    3:30 AM CST

    Kinski’s performance in “Aguirre” was stunning, but an earlier collaboration between Kinski & Herzog, “Nosferatu the Vampyre” (1979), was far superior. An overwhelming, nearly claustrophobic combination of the basic requirements for a great film : unparalleled cinematography; mesmerizing in both visuals and a haunting musical score, great writing, acting and directing. Paradoxically a labor of love; one of the greatest Symbolist/Allegorical film creations of the 20th century.


    Grace: You mean a later collaboration? They are quite a pair. It must be bittersweet to find someone so complimentary and volatile at the same time.

    • October 28, 2009 12:01 PM

      11:00 AM CST

      Yes, I meant later…sorry…mild dyslexia…

      And yes, the two are comparable to the great (and crazy !) Scorsese/De Niro team.


  9. October 29, 2009 1:04 AM

    “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.”

    I have yet to see Herzog, but your review makes me want to, particularly this film. I tried to see “Invincible” when it was on cable several years ago, but I kept missing it. Oh, and I reprinted part of your blog above because I have yet to find a more perfect summing up of money, especially the part that begins “It carries no meaning of its own…”

    Grace: It doesn’t! Right? Seriously, like, what’s the big deal?

  10. Grace permalink*
    November 16, 2009 11:02 AM

    I can’t be sure if the following is true or not, but I recall reading it somewhere when I wrote this piece and the memory came back to me randomly last night. Of course, I now can’t find it anywhere. But I have a feeling it is true, and Ebert says it “absolutely has to be true.” Either way, it is a pretty AWESOME story huh? Enjoy.

    Legend says that Herzog paid some locals to trap some monkeys to use in the last scene of the film, except the trappers decided to double cross him and sell the monkeys to a high buyer in the USA (somewhere Miami or Florida). The monkeys were all in cages and ready to be loaded on the plane at the airport when Herzog got news of this. He drove to the airport and pretended to be a vet from the health department and said the monkeys need to be examined before being loaded. The locals believed him. Herzog loaded the cages onto his truck and drove directly to the river, filmed the scene, and then released the monkeys back into the wild.

    • November 16, 2009 11:11 AM

      Another piece of (anecdotal) evidence that Werner Herzog is one of the great badasses of our time.

    • November 16, 2009 2:20 PM

      Yeah, I’ve read/heard that before, too. He may even mention this on the Aguirre commentary track (though I’m not totally sure). Anyway, social engineering FTW! In related news, maybe anyone motivated and interested enough could learn stuff like that at his Rogue Film School:

      Also, another thing that makes Herzog’s DVDs awesome are his mesmerizing commentary tracks.

      Grace: Aha! Maybe that’s where I heard it from…yes, Rogue Film School, only he can use that term appropriately, me thinks.

  11. November 16, 2009 2:13 PM

    Even if that isn’t true about Herzog and the monkeys, Grace, it should be.

  12. DAG permalink
    March 25, 2010 9:37 PM

    Interesting take on this film. I just finished watching it, and don’t really know what to make of it. Sure am glad I saw it, though.

    Grace: It’s one of those films that gets better with re-watches.

  13. May 16, 2010 11:30 PM

    I saw this and was absolutely blown away. It’s the only old movie I’ve seen that attracted my 11-year old sister and completely mesmerized her for the full 94 minutes. Herzog is such a compelling storyteller that we were all in awe and fright (especially when Aguirre decapitates a man and the severed head finishes his sentence.) Thanks for the review. The mind boggles contemplating trying to write a piece like this.

    Grace: Yeah…don’t know what I was thinking.


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