Sunday, January 8, 2012

Film #70: Aguirre, der zorn gottes (1972)

Title for us English-speaking types: Aguirre, The Wrath of God

Director: Werner Herzog

Initial Release Country: Germany

Times Previously Seen: once (about 8 year ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Small crew of conquistadors & slaves search for El Dorado. One of them goes batty, much to the dismay of the rest.

Extended Summary (More complete plot synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning.)

Peru, 1560. The conquistador Pizarro is in the middle of his search for El Dorado, the fabled “City of Gold”, which is rumored to be hidden deep within the Andes. However, with supplies running short, Pizarro decides to split his group, sending a scout group of forty farther down the river to find El Dorado. The leader of the group is the noble Don Pedro de Ursua, with Don Lope de Aguirre given second command. Joining them are a handful of other conquistadors, several Spanish soldiers, about a dozen indigenous slaves, Ursua’s wife, and Aguirre’s daughter.

The scout group heads downriver, but things soon go awry. One of the rafts is caught in an eddy, and most of the men aboard are mysteriously slaughtered overnight while the rest of the crew sits unaware on the opposite bank. Ursua wants to bring the dead men back to main camp for a Christian burial, but Aguirre circumvents this plan by having a crony sink the raft and dead men before anyone can retrieve them. Thus begins Aguirre’s usurpation of the group.

The buffoonish Don Guzman, unwittingly about to be "elected" as "Emperor of El Dorado".

Over the coming weeks, the expedition unravels. Aguirre heads a mutiny, puts Ursua in chains, and nominates the bloated Spanish noble Don Fernando Guzman as their new leader. Guzman, however, is merely a proxy for Aguirre’s ever-growing mania. Obsessed with obtaining glory and power, Aguirre and his reluctant followers draft a declaration of independence from Spain. The group dubs Don Guzman as “Emperor of El Dorado” and the Spaniards begin dreaming of laying claim to the untold hoards of gold somewhere in the mountains.

As the treasure-seekers continue, their numbers are gradually reduced. A few men are killed by cannibals, silently sniping them from the river banks with arrows. The river rises to a point that their rafts cannot reach the land. Their food dwindles, and their spirits wane. Don Guzman himself is eventually found dead on their raft. With their “Emperor” gone, the few remaining in the crew are at the mercy of Aguirre’s ever-deepening mania. He has Ursua hanged and demands that they press on towards El Dorado. When one of the Spanish soldiers plots to escape and return to Pizarro, Aguirre immediately has his head cut off.

The crew drifts on for several more weeks. Their food supplies become exhausted and they are gradually laid low by disease and delirium. Just at the point when the few survivors are in the final stages of starvation, they are attacked by the natives a final time. Arrows take down nearly all of them, including Aguirre’s daughter. Aguirre, now fully insane, imagines himself and his now-deceased daughter not only finding El Dorado, but building a world-sweeping empire together. He stands alone on the corpse-laden raft, stuck against the shore, as dozens of tiny monkeys swarm around him.

For a bafflingly exhaustive synopsis, check out imdb’s link here.

Now thoroughly lost in his own dementia of grandeur, Aguirre preaches to the only thing left living.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research.)

Aguirre, Wrath of God is a really impressive film, though not in very obvious ways.

Since making this movie, director Werner Herzog has solidified his reputation as an adventurous, film-making wild man, whose prime theme is nature’s indelible power over humanity. Through his dramatic films and, more recently, his brilliant documentaries, he has explored Mother Nature’s inescapable impacts on humans. In the relatively early work, Aguirre, he explores how natural forces can crush even the most powerful, driven, and maniacal impulses of mankind. It’s fascinating and disturbing to watch.

Visually, Aguirre may initially seem a touch amateurish. When compared to similar films such as The Mission or Black Robe, the camerawork seems shaky. However, it’s merely a function of hand-held technique, and I actually enjoyed the documentary type feel that it lends the tale. I got the sense that this is probably about as accurately as someone could portray these events from several centuries ago, giving an “if you were there” feel to it all. By the end, the little jolts and wavering of the camera angles enhanced the mounting chaos surrounding the expedition.

The disintegration of the conquistadors makes for compelling, if depressing, cinema. The more level-headed and righteous Don Ursua is subdued with disturbing ease by the quietly ruthless Aguirre. Almost as warped is the compliance of the accompanying monk, Brother Carvajal, who readily admits early on that “the church has ever been on the side of the strong”. The remaining Spaniards, dreaming of gold and glory, are willing to overlook Aguirre’s obvious psychosis so that they may lay claim to the chimerical treasures said to lie farther down the river. One could look at all of this as allegory, which can be fun, but it’s plenty interesting enough in and of itself.

The rather un-Christan Brother Carvajal, one of the majority who choose to chase Aguirre's mad dreams for power and glory.

Most viewers, myself included, would have to admit that some of the supporting acting is a bit shoddy. Fortunately, it hardly matters, as the primary roles are done well. Of course, the title role of Aguirre himself is key, and Klaus Kinski is amazing. His frog-like, protruding eyes and wide mouth. The wildly off-kilter shoulders and strange gimp. These physical deformations belie the dementia-driven ambition that lies within the obsessed would-be conqueror. Often with little more than an intense stare, Kinski’s Aguirre wills nearly all those around him into doing his bloody bidding. It’s absolutely mesmerizing, and Kinski draws your eyes in virtually every scene.

Amid the intense and brutal exploits of the Spaniards are the eerily quiet moments of the western Amazonian rain forest. As the rafts float along the river, the latent power of the whole environment is palpable. As the film progresses and the crew is gradually laid low, it becomes clear that they never stood a chance. Their cannons and rifles may have given an advantage over some of the primitive cannibal tribes that they encounter, but ultimately the locals and the jungle wipe out the invaders. Perhaps most interesting is that, while the “conquerors” failed tragically in their quest to subdue the land and its people, the land and its people quash the interlopers with nary a bat of the eye. Aguirre and his crew’s grand ideals for power and immortality amount to little more than an insignificant nuisance, if even that, to their destroyers.

As you can tell, this is not exactly a popcorn movie. One probably should not expect to be “entertained” by it. At only a little over 90 minutes, though, it is not a massive time commitment, and there’s plenty of beautiful, natural imagery juxtaposed with the brutality. I would recommend that everyone watch it at least once, for it offers a great perspective on humanity’s place in the natural world. The themes in Aguirre, though expressed in a setting nearly five centuries old, are just as poignant today.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (Done after some further research.)

How much fact? How much fiction? Anyone who watches a “historically based” movie has to wonder this. The answer in the case of Aguirre, The Wrath of God is a mix. Herzog did use a few historical accounts about a real expedition involving some of the men and women portrayed in the film. However, Herzog streamlined and refashioned them to keep the film tighter. The reality is actually more terrifying. The historical Aguirre did attempt to lead a revolt against Spain. Rather than meet his fate in the middle of a Peruvian river, though, he set up on an island off the coast of Venezuela. His vainglorious attempt to overthrow the Spanish crown ended with his men deserting him for pardons and Aguirre being captured, drawn and quartered, but not before he killed his own daughter.

As if the film rendition of the psychotic Don Lope de Aguirre weren't terrifying enough, the actual man was probably even more frightening.

Herzog’s modified film version is what any maverick film-maker seeks: a monumental piece of art made on a laughable budget. Herzog made this film on a measly $350,000, but he showed how vision and talent can overcome such financial limitations. While not released in the U.S. for several years after its unveiling, Aguirre was an instant critical success around the world. In the forty years since, its stature has only grown. Some of the most heavily and obviously influenced films to follow Herzog’s basic template are: Apocalypse Now, Predator, The Mission, and The New World. I’ve seen the first three, and though they are vastly different from one another, I love them all.

There are no real surprises when it comes to why this movie is so lauded. In this 1999 review, Roger Ebert does a nice job capsulizing the merits that virtually all other professional reviewers see in not only this movie, but many of Werner Herzog’s others.

Probably the most fascinating thing to learn about this movie is the borderline insanity of lead man Klaus Kinski. If you read the Ebert review referenced above, you get some of the tales. An even more complete list of Kinski’s Grade-A whack-job antics is here at wikipedia, including his shooting off an extra’s finger, and basically scaring the living hell out of everyone on the set. Herzog used this to the film’s advantage, allowing Kinski to have his volcanic temper tantrums, run out of energy, and then film the desired scene. The result is magic. By adding the odd limp to his stride, coupled with his own very real, smoldering anger, Kinski as Aguirre is a frightening sight to behold.

By the end, this is all that's left of the men's hopes of reaching the Lost City of Gold.

That’s a wrap. 70 shows down. 35 to go.

Coming Soon: Day for Night (1973):

Another film that I know nothing about, aside from what it says on the sleeve of the DVD. Come on back in about a week to see what I think about this French film.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.