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Aguirre, The Wrath of God

Posted by Mick on April 19, 2010 – 10:02 pm

My Herzog project continues.  Last night, I decided to go with one of Herzog’s masterworks, Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

Aguirre was Herzog’s first film with Klaus Kinski.  From all accounts, it was a troubled set, with Kinski and Herzog having very different opinions on how the character of Aguirre should be played.  In at least one interview, Kinksi has said that he threatened to walk off the film, and Herzog responded that he would kill him and then turn the gun on himself.  Herzog denies this.  Herzog also denies directing the rest of the film while holding a gun on Kinski.  I don’t know if any of it is true, but it’s a great story.

As near as I can tell, Aguirre is one of Herzog’s first “jungle” films.  Herzog took a crew of 8 and a host of actors into the jungles of Peru with a script he had written in 2 and a half days and no story boards.  He essentially put his cast, his crew, and himself in the middle of the jungle and started filming.  As you watch the movie, you’re never sure if the actors are acting, or simply reacting to their shared experience.  The film was shot chronologically, so that the adventures of the cast and crew traveling down the river would reflect the film’s journey as well.

The flood, and rebuilding of the rafts, is authentic.  At one point, heavy rains caused the river to overflow it’s banks, flooding the sets and destroying the rafts.  This was written into the film.

All of this resonates throughout the film, creating a palpable sense of unease.  You feel the uncomfortableness and danger of the jungle, because the crew and actors are uncomfortable, and in danger. he story itself is very loosely based on historical fact.  There actually was an Aguirre, a crazed conquistador who was part of a party searching for the fabled city of El Dorado.  Aguirre did in fact rebel and attempt to overthrow the Spanish crown and rule the continent of South America himself.  The details of the journey are based on the diaries of a Spanish Priest who was part of a journey down the Amazon, although it was a different journey than Aguirre’s.

The magic in Aguirre, the Wrath of God is not the story.  It’s the telling of the story.  The jungle itself is a major character, vicious and unyielding.  When he films the jungle, Herzog allows the camera to linger, prolonging the scenes to the point of uncomfortableness.  Kinski radiates anger and insanity, madness smoldering under the surface as if to reflect the jungle itself.

As the doomed soldiers and their party travel deeper in to the jungle, the stresses of the journey take a serious toll.  As the film descends into a type of surrealist fever dream, I wasn’t sure if Aguirre was hallucinating, or if it was me.  There are parts of the movie near the end that I don’t recall clearly.

And then there are the monkeys.  The climax of the film involves Aguirre, a sinking raft, and 400 monkeys.  I found it fascinating and beautiful.  Iconic, if you will.

One of the themes I’m noticing as I watch Herzog’s films in proximity like this is his recurring use of animals to add a touch of surrealism.  Sometimes more, sometimes less, but frequently enough that I may have to go back and re-watch one or two of them to see if I missed something.  And while I’ve seen many different animals, including a dieing camel in Even Dwarfs Started Small, I can’t help but notice how often chickens are involved.  Something to keep my eyes open for in the future.

Aguirre is wonderful.  You can almost taste the conflict between Herzog and Kinski, and that conflict results in an acting performance that’s a joy to watch, and one that forged a relationship that drew the men together for 4 more films and produced some of Herzog’s strongest work.

It’s not a film I would watch for fun.  It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge that rewards in the end.

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