Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

I’ve fallen a bit behind with last year’s movies, and accumulated something of a back catalog to wade through, so let’s just get on with it, shall we? Aguirre, the Wrath of God had been on my radar for more than a couple of years now, and I was very pleased to be able to finally see it, speak nothing of the opportunity to actually watch it in a proper movie theater. What made it even more special was the grainy copy that they had. That combined old school cinema experience went a long way to strengthen the intensity of the decrepit insanity in the second half of the movie. I was already familiar with Kinski (whose very reserved performance was very striking, but more of that later) and his acting prior to seeing the film, but this was the first time I ever  saw something Herzog had directed and I have to say, I was very impressed.

The long opening sequence depicting the slow march down from the mountains into the thick, sweaty jungle below and trying to push through the forest was a very powerful experience for me. The expedition’s struggles to advance seemed so tedious and real that in hindsight it really does work magnificently as a subtle overture to the upcoming journey they were about to take down the Amazon river. The minimalistic approach to telling the story also worked marvelously to depict the slow corruption and mental degrading that the greedy expedition went through the further down they descended the river. The best example of this probably being the pompous and arrogant attitude Fernando develops after he had become accustomed to his role as the future King of El Dorado: despite food starting to run low, he openly feasts extravagantly in front of everyone, gorging the fruit like a pig and then has the horse (which would have served to replenish their food stock with fresh meat for a short while) thrown out of the raft simply because it annoyed him, while his men are starving and have to make due with meager rations that are hand counted, grain by grain.

We also have to speak of Aguirre himself. After all, he is the pivotal character and his insanity drives the movie, maneuvering behind his superiors, ultimately inciting rebellion and manipulating the men to follow him in order to claim the golden city for themselves. The way the movie depicts him is very interesting. He clearly is a brutally ruthless man with a deviously clever mind, yet multiple times we see him he act nothing like that whenever he is in the company of his daughter, to whom he shows surprisingly high level of tenderness. It’s because of this that I believe Herzog was right to insist that Kinski play Aguirre as very calm and reserved, instead of a raving lunatic, as how Kinski had wanted to play him. It’s that approach that makes him so much more menacing, and greatly adds power to the final scene in the movie, where everyone else has died and he delivers his demented monologue that reveals that he has completely lost his grip from reality.

When talking about the movie, the crazy stories relating to how the movie was made will inevitably also come up. A very laborous and difficult production to begin with, it was made no easier by the many clashes between Herzog and his star Kinski. My understanding is that the story about Herzog forcing Kinski to do scenes at gun point isn’t true, although it’s not that far from the truth, as according to Herzog what he actually did was threaten to first shoot Kinski and then himself if Kinski would abandon the set again after one of his tantrums. That isn’t even the only story concerning fire arms, apparently there was an actual gunshot incident involving Kinski, where a crew member lost part of their finger. I suppose there is something to the saying that You cannot make true, everlasting art without some tears, sweat and blood being shed in the process.

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