Friday, January 28, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Year of Release  1972
Country  Germany
Length  94 min.
Director  Werner Herzog
Screenwriter  Werner Herzog
Cinematographer  Thomas Mauch
Editor  Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus
Original Score  Popol Vuh
Cast  Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo, Roy Guerra, Del Negro

Beauty Aguirre begins with arguably the most stunning shot in the frequently gorgeous filmography of Werner Herzog, as a mid-sized army of conquistadors and slaves descend down a winding, cloud-covered mountain. Throughout the film, Herzog and cinematographer Thomas Mauch show the glorious yet inhospitable Andean terrain engulfing and overpowering the foreigners who attempt to traverse it. This style holds up through the final shot (also a candidate for best shot in Herzog's filmography), as the mutinous tyrant Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) is surrounded on a sinking raft by a gang of monkeys.

Strangeness Much of the power of Aguirre comes from its combination of narrative and documentary elements. The storyline, about a group of 16th-century conquistadors traveling over the Andes in search of the fabled El Dorado, is pretty straightforward, but the fact that it plays out against actual jungle backdrops gives the film a palpable sense of nature's daunting oddity that simply wouldn't be possible on a controlled soundstage. Kinski's over-the-top yet controlled performance is one of the most convincing depictions of insanity on film. His titular character is as unpredictable as the jungle terrain.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter The obsessive narrative focus on Aguirre's single-minded pursuit is frequently contrasted with shots that emphasize the grandeur of nature compared to the puniness of Aguirre and his crew. The natives who attack the conquistadors remain almost entirely offscreen, which enhances the feeling that nature itself is battling against the expedition.

Tradition Aguirre's focus on men attempting to conquer an indifferent natural world recalls F.W. Murnau's Tabu (1930), as well as Anthony Mann "landscape westerns" such as The Naked Spur (1953), though Herzog's prominent use of actual uncontrollable forces like raging rivers and wild animals makes his film more visceral than Murnau's or Mann's. Herzog's film is a clear visual and tonal influence on Apocalypse Now (1979), though the idealogical confusion of Francis Ford Coppola's epic makes it feel more bloated and less focused than Aguirre. With Fitzcarraldo (1980), Herzog attempted to recapture the energy of Aguirre, but that film largely feels like a pale imitation of Herzog's earlier work.

Repeatability Aguirre has held up over nearly forty years as Werner Herzog's most compelling look at a man in the grips of madness. Though we know that the film was made in the early-'70s, it feels strangely timeless. Since it is unlikely that a filmmaker other than Herzog will take the health and safety risks necessary to capture the feeling of being stranded in the jungle, Aguirre will likely continue to hold up as cinema's most vivid depiction of man's battle with nature.

Viewer Engagement The documentary elements of Aguirre give it a you-are-there feel that keeps the film engaging from first frame to last. Herzog's films are usually filled with odd tangents and scenes that go on longer than is strictly necessary, but Aguirre is unusually taut and focused by any standard. Since the viewer is placed in the position of one of Aguirre's crew members (or slaves), and because the film is as single-mindedly focused on the quest as Aguirre himself, Aguirre gets us on the side of the conquistadors to an extent, making the film much more than a simple anti-imperialist screed.

Morality Aguirre is simple enough in its narrative and elemental enough in terms of its scenery to have the feel of a timeless fable about human arrogance. Yet, while there is no question about whether the film finds Aguirre and his goals contemptible, Herzog's you-are-there approach doesn't let the viewer stand at a completely superior position to the imperialists. Aguirre offers an unforgettable lesson about the folly of men attempting to conquer nature.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God passes the Masterpiece Test.

UP NEXT A very different film about an arduous voyage, Jean Vigo's L'atalante.

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