Friday, April 25, 2014

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, West Germany, 93 minutes
Director/writer: Werner Herzog
Photography: Thomas Mauch
Music: Popol Vuh
Editor: Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus
Cast: Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo, Del Negro, Ruy Guerra, Peter Berling, Cecilia Rivera, Dan Ades, Edward Roland

Pretty much everything we have come to know and love about Werner Herzog's idiosyncratic approach to filmmaking is already present in his early masterpiece, Aguirre, the Wrath of God: a location fraught with peril, hardships for everyone involved, Klaus Kinski the impossible, otherworldly music from Popol Vuh, a dim and bleak view of human history, and a genius for working with what is available, including indigenous extras, a barrel of squirrel monkeys, and an idea for building a ship onto the top of a tree. The whole thing was shot using just one camera (which Herzog had stolen), and the majority of it is made up of one-take shots, which is understandable given the exigencies, but all the more remarkable for how sure and brilliantly visionary it is. Cinematographer Thomas Mauch deserves high praise, with Herzog (and Kinski), for making Aguirre unlike anything seen before or since.

By focusing on the 16th-century European mania for gold in the New World—notably the search for a legendary "El Dorado," which New World natives likely invented simply to placate the European explorers descending on them—Herzog found nearly an ideal vehicle for his ongoing meditations on human foolishness writ large. He never questioned how to go about it. Asked on the DVD commentary if he considered using studio soundstages, Herzog responds emphatically, "The story takes place in the Peruvian jungle. You have to go there. There's no alternative."

So to the Peruvian jungle we go, even more primitive in 1971 than it is now, hauling a cast and crew of some 450 across dangerous interior mountains, up treacherous rivers, and along trails where a person can sink to the hip in mud. It's obviously dangerous. All you have to do is look. They are playing parts in a movie, but they are evidently sweltering in the heat with pounds of conquistador armor on them, barely holding their feet on narrow trails, or stopped entirely by vegetation that gives way reluctantly and only with the prodding of determined hacking. Those water spots on the camera lens, as on one scene with rafts floating down the churning rapids of an isolated river, are not there for the effect. When it's only one take, and the main consideration is staying aboard the logs lashed together for the purpose, it just has to be enough that the players maintained their characters and costumes for the duration, never mind water on the camera lens.

That's how it worked. One morning on the shoot they woke to find that the river they were camped on had risen 15 feet overnight and taken their rafts. In response, Herzog incorporated that as a plot point into the movie and made scenes out of the necessity of rebuilding the rafts. As a travelogue alone it is amazing and often breathtaking, and incidentally breaks all kinds of moviemaking rules along the way. At the first encounter of the river, for example, thick brown water churning and rolling over the rocks and breaks of volatile rapids, the camera simply sits and looks for several minutes. The energy of the water, and its danger, are felt viscerally. It is hypnotic, hard to look away. In fact, it's so mesmerizing I never noticed how long the shot is until someone pointed it out.

But Aguirre, of course, goes far beyond travelogue, worming its way down to human fundamentals of hubris and greed with the neat allegory of these Spanish explorers, who are so overflowing with evil, even as they pay lip service to Church, State, and whatnot. They do it all for the greater glory, which is only the usual cover story. The monk who accompanies the party (and ostensibly provides the journal on which the story is based, though that's just something else Herzog made up for the sake of the picture) is actually the worst kind of craven moral relativist in the face of the enormity of Aguirre, who routinely does away with anyone in his way. A woman who is likely to be murdered comes to the monk for his help, but he only tells her, "You know, my child, for the good of our Lord, the Church was always on the side of the strong." ("That's how I see the role of the Church in Latin America," Herzog quickly adds on the DVD commentary.)

As a movie, Aguirre, the Wrath of God is practically insane. Out of the bleakness it takes sudden turns into mordant (and very funny) humor. Out of the evident privations we witness there is a real beauty in the ability of people—story characters, actors, and crew alike—to overcome their circumstances and prevail, however temporarily, however illusory. And, of course, Klaus Kinski practically puts this movie on his shoulders and carries it all the way home, with his bug-eyes, his strange rolling gait, and his constantly unnerving presence. "He was a pestilence every day during the shoot," Herzog says casually at one point, confirming the legendary story that he threatened to kill Kinski and then himself if Kinski followed through on a threat to leave the production. "I would have too," Herzog says, though he is also often filled with frank appreciation of Kinski's smallest gestures, such as the way he tosses away a monkey he has been talking to near the end.

Kinski as Aguirre is nothing short of magnificent in the many horrible power struggles that erupt on the journey, and in the way he is so single-minded about keeping them focused on the gold and the glory, manipulating, prodding, intimidating, tirelessly. The first time I saw Aguirre it somehow didn't make much impression, but every time since it has only thrilled me, and continued to do so. This is what gonzo filmmaking looks like.

Top 10 of 1972
1. Aguirre, the Wrath of God
2. The Godfather
3. Cabaret
4. Last Tango in Paris
5. The King of Marvin Gardens
6. The Getaway
7. Deliverance
8. Kansas City Bomber
9. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
10. The Candidate

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