Saturday 9 July 2016

1,001 Films: "Aguirre, Wrath of God" (1972)

Some movies just go the extra mile. 1972’s Aguirre, Wrath of God was the work that, after an early run of documentaries and smaller fiction ventures, established Werner Herzog as a singular creative: a filmmaker prepared to travel to the ends of the earth in the company of madmen if it meant bringing back the extraordinary vision he saw lying in wait out there. The kind of film the penny-pinching actuaries who control the production fund pursestrings insist you can’t make, its legend remains intact: to bolster his recreation of a doomed 16th century Spanish mission to plunder the gold they believed lay in wait for them in El Dorado, Herzog actually went upriver into the jungles of the Amazon, not far from Machu Picchu, where he effectively abandoned all control, submitting to the mudslides and erratic tidal changes that were going to occur whether his cameras were turning or not.

The result would be one of those masterpieces that is many films simultaneously: a Conradian adventure; a Popul Vuh-scored nightmare you can’t believe is happening, or indeed happened; a gonzo form of Sealed Knot activity; and a documentary upon the making of a film in such extreme circumstances – both an Apocalypse Now and its own Hearts of Darkness. The dream/nightmare reading flows from the manner in which Aguirre creates its own logic: somehow, you just go along with the fact these conquistadors speak fluent German, and that they’re increasingly (mis)led by the none-more-Teutonic Klaus Kinski, as wild as the surrounding foliage. (Recent revelations about Kinski’s relationship with his daughters only strengthen the film’s depiction of madness: no-one in the history of cinema has wielded a sword or beaten up a horse with quite the same level of actionable conviction.)

Out of the mists of rage and time, the core interests that have sustained Herzog’s career for the best part of four decades begin to emerge. Nature, untamed, and red in tooth and claw; a sense of actuality, recording with a documentarist’s eye the perilous business of the party negotiating these muddy, choppy hillsides and rivers; a growing sense of horror, at the sight of the men being picked off one-by-one, or slowly drifting off the map and out of their minds; and a fascination with history, and what it has to teach us about the ways societies do and don’t function. As a core text of the engaged and critical New German Cinema, Aguirre was initially made subject to region-specific interpretation – no doubt fuelled by Kinski’s letting slip the loaded word “Führer” at a moment of leadership crisis. Certainly, it’s a vivid depiction of what can happen when the safe centre ground gets abandoned in pursuit of immortality. 

Equally, though, you could view Aguirre as a parable of Vietnam, or a premonition of Afghanistan, or indeed of every other war since in which a large military force has been halted in its tracks by well-organised natives with sticks. A repeat viewing even gives teasing hints that we might see something of Herzog himself in Kinski’s Aguirre, who seems to stir up trouble and foster rebellion out of a need for turbulence, a turbulence that might match the restlessness of his own heart, head and feet. Herzog is, of course, greatly more circumspect than either his lead character or leading man, but Aguirre, Wrath of God remains an awesome thesis on what we have to gain and lose from pushing ourselves, and being pushed in return: the director had to haul a steamship over a mountain – for 1982’s Fitzcarraldo – to top it.

Aguirre, Wrath of God screens at the BFI Southbank in London this Wednesday night at 6.15pm, and is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through the BFI.

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