Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
★★★ / ★★★★

Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” is about images that linger in the mind. It has a plot, a story, and dialogue that helps to connect the dots, but put the film on mute and the impact of the film is almost as deep and lasting. This is a mark of a great picture even though, admittedly, not everything it has to offer worked for me. For instance, the characters, including the protagonist, do not have much dimension to them. One can argue that perhaps that is the point: We are not meant to get to know their characters, just their circumstances—the doomed expedition in search of El Dorado.

Starting to get the feeling that the journey he is leading is foolish, Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés) appoints Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra), with Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), as second-in-command, to go further downriver to learn the whereabouts of a city that is believed to be teeming with gold. The smaller party is told that if did not return within a week, it would be assumed that they were dead. Pizarro and his remaining people would then return home.

The picture has an eye for natural beauty and pattern. The opening shot is astonishing, capturing about a hundred men walking in line down a mountain as fog hovers from above. It is like looking at a row of ants and we are taking a peek from the clouds. The perspective changes quickly, however, when the camera is placed within a few feet of the line. The men in armor and holding weapons look tired but formidable. The slaves appear exhausted but no complaint is uttered among them. As in the world of ants, there is a hierarchy among these foreign explorers in the South American jungle.

It is concerned with the hardships that the Spanish and the slaves are going through. They get tangled up in the vines, find difficulty wading through mud, and endure the pressing heat. It is made clear in the opening subtitles that this story is about death. So, it is not a question of whether these explorers will survive trial. We wonder how long they have left and under what circumstances they will cease to breathe. There is a question of limited supplies but then again the natives, mostly hiding behind the trees, have a talent for hitting their targets with deadly arrows.

Food is scarce but when it is shown, we are jolted to paying attention. At one point, the starving Spaniards discover what the natives eat after combing through burning huts. Later, a nobleman (Peter Berling) is shown gorging on food while his men are left counting corn kernels. Toward the end, men are eating moss between the logs of their raft. Herzog captures desperation on a visceral level in the form of basic needs not being met.

“Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes” is elevated by Kinski’s off-kilter but magnetic performance. Those eyes are often wide, as if in a constant state of shock, trying to see past the reality that El Dorado might just be an illusion. Though the actor plays the character with a limp, his character does not appear weak or vulnerable. On the contrary, it adds to his level of danger, as if he lunging forward to move the rest of his body might turn into an unpredictable attack.

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