Werner Herzog once asserted that civilisation was like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness. In Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), the delicacy between the two is exposed, leaving in its wake a singular, visceral apparition of man’s descent into madness that lies in purgatory, somewhere between dreams and reality.
The picture follows a Spanish expedition in pursuit of the fabled El Dorado, led by the maniacal Don Lope de Aguirre in a semi-fictionalised account of their voyage down the Amazon. It demands our attention from the opening shot, as conquistadors emerge through cloud-covered hills, descending one-by-one into a jungle who’s sheer anarchic force is felt instantaneously, leaving the embattled expedition with a seemingly insurmountable challenge as they continue to plunge beneath the canopy.
As the search party steadily unravels under the weight of the jungle’s might, the quest is all but finished.
From here, the expedition diverges, with a band of forty sent downstream in a final effort to locate the untold riches that have consumed their thoughts and driven them deep into the heart of darkness. As the search party steadily unravels under the weight of the jungle’s might, the quest is all but finished. Yet, the guarantee of failure in turning back repudiates the peril of death in continuing for Aguirre, a notion held almost exclusively by him. He’s guided by past exploits and consumed by a vision of what he is, or what he should be, and in extension loses sight of the reality that faces him. Klaus Kinski (Fitzcarraldo) gives arguably his most accomplished performance, executing the intricate balance between restraint and unbridled madness whilst commanding each shot with a trembling intensity that asserts power, even if misguided.
Herzog’s direction is typically instinctive. A pioneer of ‘New German Cinema’, his camera never dictates, but simply observes, lending a documentary-like quality to the picture which enhances the feeling of authenticity throughout. This is contrasted against the hallucinatory, almost dreamlike environment created as the voyage continues its descent into destruction whilst the sanity of its members rapidly deteriorates. All this is evidence of Herzog’s ability and draws parallels to the likes of Sergei Eisenstein or Andrei Tarkovsky in their shared vision and scope. Perhaps the most pivotal scene in the film is Aguirre’s monologue towards the climax of the picture, which is no less than masterful. It encapsulates the film’s central theme; the folly of man in the face of insuperable adversity, whilst glaring into moral oblivion. Aguirre, the Wrath of God inhabits the mind long after its drifted downstream, and that’s a testament to all those involved.
Last modified: 27th May 2020