Aguirre, the Wrath of God – Review

11 Sep

One of the most iconic professional relationships in the history of film is that of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. Herzog is a brilliant film maker who pushes the boundaries of cinema and has made a name for himself doing it. Kinski, on the other hand, was an absolute madman who threatened people on a daily basis and had manic explosions that makes the Vesuvius eruption seem like nothing. While the two men were constantly at odds with each other, it can’t be denied that they did some excellent work together. The first film they ever collaborated on is the 1972 film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Upon its release, it was a critical success and has been called a masterpiece of cult film making. That’s a lot to live up to, but this minimalist adventure into both the South American jungles and insanity lives up to the hype.

After conquering the Incan Empire, conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés) leads a group of his men and slaves down the Andes Mountains and into the jungle in search of the lost city of El Dorado. As they get deeper and deeper into the jungle, Pizarro decides to send a small party further downriver, led by Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) and his second in command being the manipulative Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski). When Ursúa recommends going back to Pizarro’s camp after 7 days of searching, Aguirre decides that that this course of action is unacceptable and leads a mutiny against the leader and elects the slovenly nobleman Don Fernando de Guzmán (Peter Berling) to lead the group to El Dorado. Of course, Aguirre knows that Guzmán is a fool and uses this to take power over the party and to build a raft to sail deeper into the jungle that is crawling with native cannibals looking for food. As members of the party start being picked off one by one, Aguirre falls further into madness and becomes hungrier for power, and will stop at nothing to find El Dorado, even when the expedition becomes a hopeless tragedy.

Who better to tell this story than Werner Herzog? Well, I could actually think of a handful of people to make it before I thought of Herzog, but it’s excellent that he was the one to tackle it. The characters in this movie are all based on real people who actually did go looking for the mythical city of El Dorado, but it isn’t known for sure how they all met their demises. Herzog isn’t interested with fact in Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Instead, he’s interested in weaving a story full of deception, manipulation, and murder. While this all sounds very theatrical, this movie is anything but. Shot on location in South America, it would’ve been impossible to bring a film crew out that was necessary with the budget Herzog was working with. This made the film maker shoot scenes in whatever way he can which made for a very loose and almost documentary style. It’s a method that makes this film absolutely engrossing and it really worked at making me get immersed in the jungle environment these characters were trying to navigate. It’s a prime example of a low budget miracle.

This was a highly demanding movie for both the actors and the crew, so I imagine it wasn’t always easy getting the performance that was necessary, especially from you know who. Still, the performances in this movie feel very natural and ahead of their times in some ways. Herzog is an auteur film maker and his demand for his vision is evident with the stories that have been recorded from the set and the actual outcome of the movie. I do have to talk about Kinski’s performance since it’s one of the main reasons to even watch this film. He has a fire in his eyes and he captures the madness of Aguirre with perfection. He’s actually not in it as much as I thought he would be, especially since the movie is named after his character. He definitely is the main driving force behind the film, but he often times pulls the strings from offscreen. When he is onscreen, however, his acting is electrifying and you can see why Herzog chose to collaborate with him four more times after this despite the trouble he had.

This movie had the story to be an epic yet tragic adventure tale full of larger than life heroes and villains. Instead, Herzog went the much quieter route and it’s all the better for it. Most of the violence happens within the blink of an eye and most of the dialogue is spoken in a very uncinematic way. Much like everything else, the story doesn’t flow and move like a traditional film. Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a very slow movie that isn’t afraid to completely stop moving for a while and focus on the stability, both mental and physical, of the characters. If you’re looking for a swashbuckling action adventure film, Aguirre is bound to disappoint. This is a film that takes its time and forces you to stick with it.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is an outstanding film through and through. It’s a subtle tale of madness that works so well because the storytelling is so quiet and unconventional. Herzog’s guerrilla style behind the camera also made the film seem all the more authentic. If anything, it’s worth a viewing just to see Kinski’s manic performance come to life before your very eyes. This isn’t a movie for everyone I don’t think, but it is a masterpiece of the cinematic arts and any brave lover of film needs to give it a go.

Final Grade: A

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