When people learn that I hope to become a film critic after I graduate college, they immediately ask me what my favorite film is. I'm not entirely sure why, as the sort of people who ask me this question -- typically adult family friends -- are the sort who invariably tell me that they only go to the cinema once a year, and four times out of five the last movie they saw involved Jesus in some capacity, though in a lot of those films he just kind of hangs out (har har, gallows humor). Yet it's a question I never fully know I have the answer to, because in my warped head I feel the need to differentiate between "favorite" and "best." For example, having only seen Rules of the Game and Persona twice apiece, I would not hesitate to list them as two of the 10 best films I've ever seen, yet combined I haven't watched them as many times as I sat down with Sin City over the course of a single, bizarre weekend. For me favorites aren't the films I've watched the most times but the ones I love so much that I save for occasions when I might watch them wholly without distractions, for I respect and revere them that much.
Occasionally, though, I find a middle ground between the two interpretations, films that I view as high art but can also watch with the same exuberance as I do a popcorn movie. As a budding auteurist, I typically find these films among the corpora of certain directors. Martin Scorsese, Billy Wilder, even -- to the extremely limited extent to which I've seen his work and my reservations about all his films I've watched -- Jean-Luc Godard come to mind. But, for me, no one makes high art as visceral and immediate as Werner Herzog. It doesn't matter that many of his movies are in another language and thus require more concentration, nor does their inherent loopiness and warped inner logic and coherence; his quest for the "ecstatic truth" is as exciting now as it was when he moved out of directing shorts for German television into making full-length fictive and documentary films 40 years ago.
The subject of today's review is Aguirre: The Wrath of God, his fourth narrative feature and, for many, his magnum opus. Herzog's unique and overpowering visual style can be most easily glimpsed in three scenes across his entire narrative filmography: the madcap but tragic finale of Stroszek, the image of the boat pulled manually up a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, and the breathtaking opening shot of Aguirre. As the electro-orchestral strains of Krautrock band Popol Vuh gently waft through the ears, Herzog starts with an establishing shot of a mountain, zooming in until we see a line of European conquistadors working their way down an indiscernible path that is so steep the ant-like procession appears to be walking down a sheer cliff wall. With any other director I might have assumed this some sort of camera effect or at least the product of a keen placement, but with Herzog I simply accept that these men, carrying with them their women in carriages on their backs, are truly there, truly made to scale such an impossible path.
They move down the mountain laden with goods and slaves, conquerors of the Incans now searching for El Dorado. The leader, Gonzalo Pizzaro, knows that he cannot continue to lead a thousand Spaniards and natives through the jungle, so he sends an expedition of 40 men to raft down the Amazon for a week and to return with news of what they find. Pizzaro places Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) in charge, with Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as his second-in-command.
Herzog immediately establishes these people as a doomed convoy, dragging cannons through the mud, bearing velvet-lined carriages containing the lavishly dressed Inez, Ursúa's mistress, and Aguirre's daughter Florés. These characters' clothes look as though Herzog looted the costume department of a local theater, yet he makes them more real than just about any period piece I've seen. When Akira Kurosawa started production on his masterpiece Seven Samurai, he instructed his actors to wear their costumes home, to break them in instead of simply showing up and putting on shiny gear that would expose the artifice. Herzog, either directly or simply through the ordeal of the agonizing shoot, employs a similar method: the conquistadors wear half-armor and the leaders are clad in the gaudy pomp of European nobility, yet the armor is tarnished with scrapes, buffs and dirt, the the bright shirts dulled by the gallons of sweat poured into them from the oppressive humidity of the jungle. Their hair is unkempt, their beards scraggly; these are real people losing themselves in the vast, unchanging terrain.
As it was in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the jungle of Aguirre is a primal force, a beautiful yet foreboding landscape that seemingly bears an ill will toward its invaders. One of the four rafts snags in an eddy. When the rest make their way back in the morning to rescue its occupants, they find nothing but corpses, yet the bodies contain no signs of a typical Indian attack. The rest of the rafts are lost when the river rises 15 feet in the night, taking with them the expedition's food supply. Like the ocean in Jaws, the jungle surrounds these men on all sides, unchanging and without haven. If the expedition does happen upon a village or a possible place of shelter, they shell it preemptively. The waters of the Amazon constantly rage, reflecting the broiling turmoil within.
Without forcing the metaphor, Herzog uses this oddball horror to comment upon the nature of imperialism. When Ursúa decides to return to the main camp, Aguirre stages a coup and presses those he does not kill on a whim further downriver. He writes a treasonous decree declaring the expedition's independence from the crown of Phillip II and sets up one of the men, Guzman, as a puppet emperor. In doing so, he effectively creates a new imperialist power -- he calls Guzman the "Emperor of El Dorado" -- even as he fashions the group into a sort of colony, complete with a leader installed to do the bidding of the imperial leaders. Ursúa, the de facto symbol of Spanish rule, is placed on a farce of a trial, but Guzman surprises his master by "pardoning" the convicted Pedro. However, Guzman proves to be as destructive a force as Aguirre, using his invented title to hoard any of the meat and fruit the conquistadors collect, feasting while the men count out their last kernels of corn. When a horse on the raft starts thrashing around, he orders it thrown overboard, and the men must watch as several hundred pounds of meat swim away from them.
Herzog's oeuvre directly concerns dreams and the line that separates them from reality, so it should surprise no one that Aguirre contains numerous oneiric scenes and imagery, yet Herzog simply inserts the impossible into the frame -- a wooden ship nestled in a tree like the ruinous product of European expansion and production reclaimed by nature, natives poking through the brush of the river banks peering at the raft, a man executed mid-sentence with such speed that his severed head can finish what it was saying -- and the effect is more jarring than if he used all sorts of camera techniques to leap between reality and fiction. The combination of Herzog's rich, saturated color palette and Popol Vuh's ethereal soundtrack only enhances the haunting and sinister nature of the jungle.
Of course, when discussing this film, all roads lead to Kinski. The director met Kinski as a young, struggling actor and was drawn to Kinski's explosive persona, but the two never collaborated until Herzog cast him as Aguirre. Forget for a moment that Kinski was genuinely unbalanced. Set aside what you might know of Aguirre 's troubled shoot and the nearly fatal tension between the director and star and look only at what's on-screen: no one, no one, could portray madness so convincingly: he lopes about the crew lolling his head like a wounded orangutan. Does Aguirre have a game leg, or is it just his method of psychological warfare? There is madness in his bright blue eyes, fueled by greed and religious insanity. When the mistress discusses Aguirre's growing instability to the priest, he solemnly dismisses her concerns, saying that "for the good of our Lord, the Church was always on the side of the strong." He knows that following Aguirre is folly, but he sees no other alternative. Besides, he looks forward to converting any natives, though when he explains that the Bible contains the word of God to one, he has the native killed when the poor man takes it literally and holds the book to his ear and remarks that he cannot hear anything.
In the film's warped climax, Aguirre stands alone on the circling raft, the other occupants slain by arrows from unseen assailants. At last driven into full insanity, he proclaims himself the "Wrath of God" and announces his intention to marry his dead daughter to create a pure blood line for his new dynasty. The jungle acknowledges the sick rule of this simian tyrant, showering him with tiny, chattering monkeys to serve as his subjects and knights. This ending, as with the rest of the film, is Herzog at his finest, making an epic out of peanuts, one every bit as affecting and grand in its own way as its clearest disciple: Apocalypse Now.