Aguirre: The Wrath of God
Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo, Del Negro, and Ruy Guerra
star in a film written and directed by Werner Herzog.
Reviewed by Josef Woodard
Viewing Werner Herzog’s weirdly hypnotic
1972 film reminds us of his irreverent genius and vision, and also
the spotty track record of achieving his loftiest ideals. Matters
of history flit about the film, like the spider monkeys scampering
around the raft in the chilling final shot, while mad Aguirre
(Klaus Kinski, in one of his most spookily cool performances)
babbles irrationally about his planned conquest of the New
Drawn loosely from the diary of the monk Gaspar de Carvajal,
Herzog’s film tells the true story of a 1560 Spanish expedition
from Perú up the Amazon, in search of the mythic El Dorado. The
official leader’s orders to turn back are countered by the crazed
Aguirre, a mutineer with visions of grand material spoils and
emboldened by the Catholic God’s grace. Nature and the stealthy
natives have other ideas in mind. As in other, later Herzog films,
including Fitzcarraldo, the director grapples with the themes of
lust for power, adventurism, and ultimate futility as the
expedition confronts the unforgiving obstacles in pursuit of gold
and glory. The film is at once oddly elegant and rough-hewn, its
raw edges intact but with deadpan humor and languid pacing giving
the whole misadventure the quality of a historical tract filtered
through a dream.
After what initially seems like heroism and bravery, Aguirre’s
mutiny yields to a grimmer reality of death and hopelessness, and
the film becomes a mind-altering experiment in ennui on the water,
punctuated by banal terror and dry humor.
Throughout his uneven but often compelling filmography, Herzog
has tended to shoot his fiction films like documentaries and vice
versa. When he’s on — and this is one of his most masterful
films — Herzog demonstrates both a strong desire to reinvent the
rules of cinema, and to chronicle the fatal folly of our species.
And, somehow, he does it in sardonic, entertaining fashion.