Monday, June 28, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Aguirre, The Wrath of God" (1972)

It's said that Werner Herzog wrote the screenplay for "Aguirre, The Wrath of God" in less than three days. I believe it, since this 1972 German film eschews narrative for hallucinatory images and long takes that plunge you into the whirlpool of the main character's madness.

It's less storytelling, and a visually disturbing fever dream.

Francis Ford Coppola was clearly influenced by this film when he made "Apocalypse Now" several years later. Thematically, the movies are similar in that they take place on a nightmarish river journey whose destination grows more figurative they further they get.

Herzog based the film on actual historical figures and events, but has acknowledged that the story is entirely fictitious. In 1560 Spanish adventurers led by Gonzalo Pizzaro search the Andes for the mythical city of gold, El Dorado. Mired in the thick jungle and unable to make progress, Pizzaro organizes an expedition of 40 men to sail downriver to find food or help. Pedro de Ursua is appointed to lead, with Don Lope de Aguirre as his second-in-command.

Aguirre clearly has greater ambitions than his superiors, and will not let anything stop them. When one of the rafts is caught in an eddy and the men slain by Indian arrows, Aguirre blows it up with a cannon rather than allow Ursua to waste time recovering the bodies for burial.

Soon Aguirre overthrows Ursua, who is shot but not slain in the mutiny, so he can continue the journey. He forces the election of Fernando de Guzman, a fat and lazy nobleman, as the new leader, intending to use him as a puppet. They declare their independence from Spain, establishing a new kingdom of El Dorado. In a surprise to Aguirre, Guzman grants Ursua clemency and allows him to live.

After their rafts are borne away by the rising river, they build a new, larger one to carry the entire expedition. Eventually they leave the rapids behind and find themselves slowly floating down the river with little to do. Guzman sits on an erstwhile throne decreeing all the land they see as part of their new kingdom. At one point he gleefully estimates their nation is six times the size of Spain -- despite the fact that they are too afraid of Indians to even go ashore.

Aguirre is played by Klaus Kinski, the volatile actor who would have a long collaboration with Herzog. The two clashed during filming, with Kinski wanting a raving mad portrayal, while the director wanted something more restrained and creepy. Herzog won the argument by simply waiting until Kinski's rages had subsided, and then filming the quieter takes.

It's an amazing performance, one of pure venom and unbridled ambition. In the film's remarkable closing scene, with all of his men and his own daughter slain by arrows, Aguirre stumbles around the raft, which has become overrun by hundreds of monkeys. He vows to mate with his daughter and start a new, pure royal bloodline, and to conquer not only this land but the colonies of Spain.

One interesting thing about Kinski's performance is that he always seems to be looking at the camera sideways. He's constantly turning and twisting his body and head, as if trying to present the most oblique angle possible to the camera.

Another aspect that adds to the film's hallucinatory quality is the blurring of languages and nationalities. You've got a largely German cast portraying Spaniards, so their dialogue is in German. Except the dialogue was actually spoken in English on the set, since it was the only common language on a very multicultural crew. So you've got Germans speaking English pretending to be Spanish. Plus, Kinski refused to re-dub his lines in German without considerably more money, so another actor was brought in to do his dialogue.

"Aguirre, The Wrath of God" remains an often mesmerizing tone poem, about man's folly and lust for wealth, power and fame.

3 stars out of four

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