CAPSULE: AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972)

Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Del Negro, Ruy Guerra

PLOT: 16th-century Spanish nobleman Aguirre convinces an Amazonian scouting party to turn against their commander and continue a futile trek down the river in search of the fabled city of “El Dorado”; privation, massacres, and death ensue.

Still from Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This movie is certainly atypical, but the only truly weird thing about it is that it is one of the few movies featuring Klaus Kinski in which his role is not overshadowed by his ding an sich.

COMMENTS: There are any number of good things to say about this movie, and I’ve little doubt that most have been said already (by reviewers far more experienced and informed than I). Still, for what it’s worth, I’ll boldly take the stance that, yes, this movie is amazing, and anyone who considers him or herself a cinephile should watch it, and that no, it does not qualify for the auspicious (dubious?) honor of being “Certified Weird.”

The two factors that would have most likely planted this movie firmly in the “weird” category in conjunction, somehow, preclude that possibility. A young Werner Herzog directs a young Klaus Kinski, filming in the middle of a Peruvian rainforest. The story concerns the mishaps of a clutch of very misguided conquistadors who, defying all logic, continue on a suicidal mission to find “El Dorado”, until they meet a very grim fate indeed. So far, so promising. However, the whole prospect of “weirdness” gets derailed within the first five minutes, as things quickly become very real and very grounded in a believable depiction of the febrile hardship that would necessarily come of such an ill-equipped and poorly planned expedition.

The opening shot invokes something close to Heaven, as the audience sees tall mountain peaks obscured by vaporous clouds. Popol Vuh’s choir-like score enhances the detachment from the world below. The next cut brings the action back to earth, as a serpentine procession of Spanish soldiers and Indian slaves trickles slowly down. Weapons, armor, cannons, and food are all being laboriously maneuvered down the narrow path, along with two cumbersome sedan chairs for the ladies in the group. The red uniforms make a zig-zagging crimson line, slowly flowing from the top of a peak down into the lush, tropical mire below.

Foreshadowing comes quickly, as Pizarro and Aguirre confer by the river’s edge. “No one can get down that river alive,” Aguirre asserts. “I tell you, we can do it,” replies Pizarro, “From here it will be easier.” Aguirre retorts, “No. We’re all going to go under.” In this brief bit of dialogue, the rest of the movie is laid out, and the movie becomes no longer concerned with what’s going to happen, but with how it’s going to happen.

The minimalist camerawork provides a sense of documentary footage for a great deal of the film. Characters are observed as they stare blankly at the water, or stare blankly at the surrounding jungle, or even as they stare blankly at the camera. The action is disjointed, but linear, as various forward jumps occur, typically narrated with a specific date. The merciless crunch of time weighs on the viewer, as he sees the terrible state of the men, only to find in the next scene they have somehow survived another four weeks of this torment. And while they are all either starving, collapsing from fever, or being stealthily murdered by hostile natives, they are under the watchful eye of the nobleman Aguirre.

Kinski provides his signature otherworldly presence in his depiction of Aguirre, but the effect does not come across as jarring. On a number of occasions Aguirre refers to himself either as “God” or “the Wrath of God”, and often has a habit of looking over those around him as if they were some sort of insects. The Aguirre “vibe” is one of megalomaniacal narcissism (if that’s redundant, it is appropriately so), and no actor other than Kinski could have delivered the look and temperament required of so zealous a leader.

This adds up to a movie that is a) narratively comprehensible, b) credible, and c) troubling, but appropriately so. See it by all means: the performances are all top-notch, the pacing is incredible (Herzog somehow manages to squeeze just the right amounts of madness and tedium in a 94-minute movie), and the sound and visuals will knock your socks off. Were this site “366 stunning movies.com”, Aguirre would be first on the list (and not only because of the title…)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…overwhelming, spellbinding; at first dreamlike, then hallucinatory.”–Danny Peary, Cult Movies

(This movie was nominated for review  by Eric, who correctly asserted “whether [this] make this list or no, nobody’s time watching [it] will have been wasted.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

5 thoughts on “CAPSULE: AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972)”

  1. I’m pretty much in complete agreement with Giles here: fantastic movie, I urge everyone to see it, but weird? Not very. The last third of the movie gets more fever-dreamy and there are a couple of surreal black jokes (a talking decapitated head), but nothing too far out of the mainstream. Just very capable, classical moviemaking in a novel setting.

    I recommend not watching the English dubbed version, which actually ruins some of Herzog’s jokes.

  2. But hey, I thought that English was the original language of the movie, and they dubbed it in German.

    By the way, great review.

    1. Thanks!

      As for the whole original language thing – it’s my understanding that yes, it was filmed (largely?) in English, as that was the most prevalent common language of the actors. However, as was the case with many European movies from the ’70s, a studio dub was added afterwards in the language of wherever it was going to be released (with films at times having multiple language soundtracks created).

      Beyond the dropping of some of Herzog’s original lines, I would also strongly recommend against the English language version because whatever voice actor they got for Kinski’s character sounds far more whiny than menacing.

    2. IMDB says the filming languages were German, Quechua, and Spanish, but of course they’re not always 100% right. I just know that that wasn’t Kinksi’s voice, and one of the jokes I remembered fondly from the subtitled version (“It seems long arrows are in fashion this season”) was changed for the dubbed version.

  3. I adore this film but I agree with the assesment here–haunting, beautiful and brilliant but not terribly weird. The behind-the-scenes stories are more bizarre than the actual film! Herzog is a favorite director of mine. He has certainly contributed his fair share to the world of Weird Cinema but he also dutifully follows his muse wherever it leads him–and if his muse demands a straightforward narrative Herzog will craft one for us. There are always surreal and affectingly strange touches, but he never descends into weirdness for weirdness’ sake, which makes him a more honest and intriguing director for me than someone who imposes a personal style regardless of whether it serves the narrative. He has managed to present his unique point of view unfiltered, expressing a cohesive artistic vision for over four decades, yet he has also been highly adaptable and often painfully direct in expressing what is vital within each individual work.

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