An Appreciation – Aguirre: The Wrath of God
The opening shot is as striking as any you’ll see. Up high in the Peruvian mountains, amongst the clouds and mist, a line of soldiers, animals, and workers snake their way down a steep path. While the shot is taken from a distance, it’s clear that this moment is not manipulated at any point—those are real people steadily going through the dangerous cliffs of the rock side, with the green canyon thousands of feet below. This is just one of the many haunting images that populate Werner Herzog’s daring and ambitious examination of human nature, Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972). It’s a film that examines the depths to which obsession can take a person, created by a man who has made a career out of his obsession for the cinema. There are some filmmakers who do the work as a job, others because they simply enjoy it. Herzog does it because it is ingrained in his very being.
How else would you explain a director who insisted on taking his crew and bringing them deep into the heart of the Peruvian jungle at the Amazon River to film a movie? Herzog could have certainly made the film in easier conditions, maybe inside of a studio where he would have had more artistic control, and it could have come out successfully. However, would it have had as much power, such impact on us compared to actually being in those conditions? Herzog has mentioned the theory of the “voo doo” of location shooting, that being in real environments—within the elements—resulted in a kind of truth that radiates from the performances and from the movie itself. Perhaps no other film is a better example as this. The actors are truly out there, slugging through the mud and dirt, with the rain beating down on them, and insects flying all around. Not much “acting” is needed if you’re waste deep in a mud pit, trying to move forward with all your might. And because of that, Herzog has captured the unpredictability of the real world. There is a moment when a group of men almost drop a carriage, but it’s immediately held up by an unseen person off screen. That helping hand belonged to Herzog.
This insistence on truth has led to a film that brims with the agony and horror that the characters go through. The story of the film involves a Spanish expedition—after the fall of the Incan empire—heading into the jungle in search of the fabled El Dorado, the lost city of gold. This, along with the determination to spread the influence of Christianity, is the driving force that pushes the expedition into what is most certainly a suicide mission. It’s interesting to think about what drives human beings to such incredible acts, especially the dangerous kinds. El Dorado at this point is still only a myth, with very little (if any) true evidence pointing toward its existence. And yet they push forth, led by the conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles). They have a number of Spanish soldiers, hundreds of native slaves, and even their wives and daughters amongst their own. These people may feel that what they are doing is a righteous and noble effort, but in reality it’s simple greed that fuels them. From the very beginning we can sense that they have no idea what they are getting themselves into, walking into the wild on horseback and carriages, and wearing outfits more appropriate for a parade than an expedition. Even more peculiar is that the film is narrated by the character of Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro), a priest who says that spreading the word of God is the most important thing to do, and yet is part of an expedition that’s sole purpose is the gaining of monetary wealth.
Immediately, the wild begins to consume them, as they become lost and weary from starvation and disease. Some of the slaves begin to die, and word that native tribes are nearby hunting them spreads. There are some filmmakers who portray nature in a beautiful, ethereal fashion—Herzog is not one of them. In fact, he is just the opposite, with the jungle being both unrelenting and unsympathetic for his characters. I wonder: if Herzog thinks the jungle to be such a dangerous and cruel place, why has he returned to it so often in his career? He has made a number of movies about these kinds of people, and has filmed in the same area numerous times before. Perhaps through an examination of their actions, Herzog is tapping into a part of himself that somehow resembles them. I can see Herzog in another life much like this, exploring untamed worlds with grandiose ideas running through his head. At one disparate point, Pizarro decides to order a small group to venture further down the Amazon in search of food and information on El Dorado, and to report back in one week. As we watch the small band ride shambled rafts down the river, we sense that they, and Pizarro, will never see each other again.
It is at this juncture where the film makes a turn, away from the real world and toward a more abstract, dream-like state. What Herzog is so good at is taking a story, presenting it in a familiar way, and then changing it to create something entirely unpredictable. He skews toward the absurd and isn’t afraid to point his camera at something or someone just because it fascinates him. This is a large reason why he is such a good documentary filmmaker—he knows where to look at just the right time. There are moments in the film where we are presented with an image that doesn’t seem to gel with the main story: a mother rat taking care of her newborn babies, an unnamed native slave holding a butterfly in his fingertips, another slave energetically playing his wooden flute. They don’t necessarily contribute to the plot, but Herzog isn’t concerned with the hindrances of plot details. He is much more concerned with mood and atmosphere, and how these seemingly random moments contribute to the uneasy, hallucinatory stages of the film’s second half. We see the group begin to disband, with some wanting to return to Pizzaro and others determined to go forward and find El Dorado for their own benefits. The initial leader of the group, Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra), tries to keep things under his control but is betrayed quickly, and when a lone native is found with a golden amulet around his neck, the obsessive greed drives the men further toward their own demise.