Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review: Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes [Aguirre: The Wrath of God] (Werner Herzog, 1972)

Aguirre: The Wrath of God is one of the most intriguing and lusciously captured films I have ever witnessed. Werner Herzog, a renowned guerrilla filmmaker, sure knew how to make the process a struggle and the harsh Peruvian Andes and Amazon River used throughout this decent into madness would have proven to be a nightmare. Shot on an incredibly low budget, it follows the tale of an impossible mission by Spanish conquistadors to search the Peruvian Rainforest for the lost city of El Dorado. After striking trouble in the fierce rapids of the Amazon and losing an entire raft, the crippled hierarchy is slowly overthrown by Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) who, despite the endless setbacks, is committed to continuing the mission and reaping the riches promised by the discovery. Faced with unseen enemies that silently shoot down his men from the banks, hunger, dehydration and disease, and mutiny at every corner, Aguirre's gradual wallow into madness is a mesmerizing experience. 

Herzog's hand-held camera is at their side the entire way, weaving in and out of the characters, and tracking the rafts as though it is floating along the water. It feels like a documentary, and is certainly influential on many films that portray confrontation with nature, most notably one of my favorite films, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). The haunting score was also beautiful. There really is minimal action or plot; but there are key episodes that directly influence the mission. But where it is most effective is through it's atmosphere, and the sense of unrest and rising mutiny thoughout. 

The wonderful opening sequence tracks the entire congregation of the journey snaking their way down a steep and narrow mountain path, amidst the surrounding fog. They not only have to navigate the route themselves, but carry cannons and supplies over the dangerous terrain and through the thick, humid jungles. The final sequence, where a now lonesome Aguirre stalks around the raft accompanied by hundreds of little monkeys, is also one of the most memorable. Klaus Kinski's Aguirre is a scowling madman who fantasizes about exploring the Atlantic and overthrowing all previous rulers. Even by the end, when he stands alone on the raft, he narrates: "I, the wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and together we would rule the purest dynasty known to man." Drained by hunger and fear, and suffering from hallucination, he is blind to the downfall of his mission. It certainly takes multiple viewings to appreciate the work that has gone into this film and grasp its themes, but it is certainly a rewarding experience and essential viewing for lovers of pure cinema.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

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