Friday, November 1, 2013

CANON OF FILM: "AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD"

AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1974)

Director/Screenplay: Werner Herzog


One of my old college professors, David Schmoeller shot a film once with the notorious difficult-to-work-with actor Klaus Kinski, and later documented his accounts with him in an award-winning short film entitled “Please Kill Mr. Kinski,” outlining the actor’s erratic and uncooperative behaviors. Yet, in the last half of the twentieth century, one of the great actor-director teams in cinema involved Klaus Kinski, and not surprisingly, it was with the most mad and single-mindedly eccentric director of all-time, Werner Herzog. Herzog is one of the more unusual filmmakers, telling stories that are as much about the landscape and sounds as they are the stories he tells, which are about characters who also, have very similarly single-minded obsessions. He’s the only director to have filmed a movie on every continent, including Antarctica with his documentary “Encounters at the End of the World”. He’s made two famous visits to the South American jungle, most famously for the film in “Fitzcarraldo,” about a man trying to move an houseboat across land so he could build an opera house. He went to the Alaskan tundra for the documentary “Grizzly Man,” about a man who was mauled to death by the bears he protected and cared for. In between comes great films like “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” “Woyzeck,” “Ballad of the Little Soldier,” “Invincible,” “Stroszek,” “Rescue Dawn,” “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” and, “My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski,” an homage to his late friend, sorta. Herzog films are so distinctive, there’s no question of one’s ability to spot one once you have seen one, and “Aguirre, The Wrath of God,” is maybe his most influential (And is the other famous one taking place in South America) it may also be one of the easiest of his works to fully digest, but don’t confuse that with a normal story.

It takes place in the early 1600s as a group of Spanish conquistadors attempt to maneuver their way through the scarcely inhabited Amazon jungle in search for El Dorado, the mythic hidden city made of gold. They’re dressed for battle in the times of King Arthur, complete with a king and numerous queens who’re carried across the jungle by the soldiers, as well as cannons that are also dragged across the dirt. They have enslaved those they’ve come across, but it’s basically a long game of survivor for those who’re completely and utterly unqualified to even try. The leader of the group sends out a few rafts to go downstream for a couple days in order to see if there’s any truth to the rumor of gold but then to come back immediately and report. Based on a true story, as told by a surviving journal written by the priest (Del Negro), who’s around for religious guidance, as well as the involuntary conversion of the local tribesman, Aguirre (Kinski) who was second in command of the mission orchestrates a one-man mutiny which leads the mission much farther down the treacherous river. Many crew are loss along the way, even before the mission started, a raft of 9 men was caught in an eddy in the river unable to get out. They try to send people to help, but by the time they get there, six men are dead of suicide, and three are missing, never to be found, and the raft remains stuck in the eddy, and that’s about the fifth strangest image in the film, not nearly coming close the final ending shot of Aguirre, remaining captain of his broken ship king of all the land around surrounded literally by monkeys. (By the way, the other crazy aspect to Herzog’s  films is that, he doesn’t use special effects. When I say a raft is stuck in an eddy, it’s really a raft, it’s really an eddy, and it’s really stuck, and those are real monkeys at the end too) After traveling down the river for months, they come across a native with gold around his neck, claiming they should keep going, showing he got it over there, farther on down the river. As mutiny upon mutiny upon disease upon starvation lead the crew, there’s little doubt of the film’s ending, but the film is about troubles and tribulations to much less embark on, much less be entrapped upon this kind of mission, and then the daringness of Herzog to even attempt this film in any form, much less the realistic approach he uses. They say filmmakers have life-changing experiences for every film they do. Just trying to make one of Herzog’s films would destroy a good filmmaker, with or without Kinski. His films aren't so much about the subject matter he tackles, but the fact that he even tries to tackle them at all makes his films all the more fascinating, even if we may think the filmmakers might be going mad with power.

“Aguirre, the Wrath of God”, is an astonishing piece of the amazing ability for a film to be willed through filmmaking, at an extreme level; a project that would destroy the greatest of filmmakers, however, for Werner Herzog, “Aguirre…” is a rather ordinary endeavor, and that’s what we love about him. 
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