Sunday, September 24, 2017

Werner Herzog | Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, The Wrath of God)

by Douglas Messerli

Werner Herzog (writer and director) Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, The Wrath of God) / 1972, US 1977

If nothing else you have to give Werner Herzog credit for working, five times no less, with the near-mad actor Klaus Kinski, as well as discovering and featuring the difficult to deal-with actor, Bruno S. But then Herzog clearly liked the challenges of doing near-impossible movies.
      Already in his second film, Even Dwarfs Started Small, we see him filming with an isolated and fairly insane group of imprisoned little people. By the time of Aguirre, The Wrath of God he was warming-up to the even more-impossible-to-film Fitzcarraldo (also with Kinski). At least in this Amazon-based story the characters are not saddled with carrying an entire ship by land. Here, as Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés) descends from the already-conquered  Incan empire to the jungle in search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado, at least there is enough man-power to possibly accomplish the task.
     As we know, mostly from the writings of a Gaspar de Carvajal, a Spanish monk ministering to the Indians and the Spanish, most of those involved never returned, and the men, women, and native Incans who Pizarro sent down river to check out the feasibility of the remaining of voyage all were either killed or went mad before they were destroyed by natural causes.
     Several critics have written about the early scenes of Herzog’s near-miraculous film; as the camera begins in a broad view of Spaniards, dressed in helmets and metal plates, who slowly make their way with a procession of chained Incans down the mountainside, women carried in gilded hand-coaches, the music by West German progressive/Krautrock band Popol Vuh plays an ethereal score, as if suddenly the heavens have opened up to celebrate these new gods’ trek from the high country into the verdant jungle below.
      It is only when the camera moves in on the party as it begins to reach that jungle growth that Herzog reveals how arduous is their voyage and how absolutely ridiculous the participants of this voyage are. The Spaniards, barking out German-language orders, attempt to save their  foodstuffs, their cannons, and particularly their women from the mud in which they are now engulfed. But, by the time their reach the river, they are exhausted, and the force of the Amazon is so powerful that it’s clear they must travel downstream even if they might wish to make the voyage of quickly constructed rafts. Even the vain Pizarro perceives the impossibility, holding most of his retinue back, while sending some of his strongest men ahead to check out whether such a route is possible.
      Among the raft-borne voyagers are the already mentioned monk, Carvajal (Del Negro), who in real life, never took this voyage, Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra), named head of the party, and his mistress Inés de Atienza (Helena Rojo), the already slightly mad Lope de Aguirre (Kinski) and his daughter Florés (Cecilia Rivera), Perucho (Daniel Ades), a friend of Aguirre,  the only royal among them, Don Fernando de Guzmán (Peter Berling), and numerous Peruvian slaves.
      From the beginning the trip down river does not go well. One of the four rafts is soon caught up in an eddy, and cannot be moved across to join the others who have made an encampment. By morning they discover all the occupants of the raft dead, shot by local tribal Indians. Ursúa demands that others attempt to cross to bring back the bodies, but Aguirre, determined to move forward, orders Perucho to send a cannon blast to the trapped raft, spilling the bodies in the heaving river.
     By morning, the river, having risen during the night, has taken away the other three rafts. Ursúa determines that there is no way of moving forward, and orders the group to return through the jungle to Pizarro and the others to tell them the route is impassable.
      Quickly maddened by the legends he has hear, Aguirre shoots Ursúa and another supporter, and takes command, giving the title of the “King of Spain” to the fat and quite ignorant Guzmán. But even Guzmán will not order the death of the recovering Ursúa, although both he and his mistress know it is only a matter of time before Aguirre will attempt to kill him. When Inés dares to ask Carvajal why he not spoken out in the name of the Church against Aguirre’s acts, he explains that the Church has always supported the strongest, never the weak, restating a theme that will be expressed time and again in Herzog’s films. Society and religion are never to be trusted when it comes to the individuality of the human being.
     Constructing one larger raft—brazenly hand-built by Herzog and his crew for the film  itself—we sense the very real danger the characters and their actors must undergo to reach their destination—the end of the film itself. To make things worse, Kinski and Herzog grew increasingly disenchanted with one another, and film legend will never quite be rid of the notion, later denied by the director, that he threatened to shoot Kinski if he dared to leave the set. No matter, Kinski clearly took the entire company (including the local natives acting in the film) hostage in his fits of tyrannical anger. In order to get a quieter performance out of the volatile Kinski, the director would purposely anger him before shoots, allowing his temper to dissipate before moving forward, in short, detonating the fuse before its on-screen explosion.
     Aguirre’s madness, nonetheless, becomes increasingly clear, as, one by one, his fellow raft-mates are killed around him by native arrows, and he, himself, plans to marry his own daughter in order to create “the purest dynasty the world has ever seen.” Like the original Aguirre, he ultimately kills her himself, declaring his acts as the “wrath of God.” It’s hard today to not perceive metaphorical comparisons to Aguirre’s behavior in one of our major political leaders.
      The film ends in one of the most startling images ever put to screen, as Aguirre, the lone survivor, is surrounded on his “raft” kingdom as his floats wildly to sea with hundreds of squealing monkeys, as if the very project that Herzog had created had run amok. The memorable images call our attention to the actor and director more than the character: who would ever think to create such a totally mad vision of the world, we can only ask. We have our answer, of course, in the figures who have dared to make Aguirre come into being. This is a private war of madness, which, by the very end of the decade, would be revisited as a public war of madness in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalyse Now. Both reveal the deepest “heart of darkness” imaginable.

Los Angeles, September 24, 2017

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