Sunday, September 26, 2010

Review – Aguirre, the Wrath of God

September 26, 2010

Aguirre, the Wrath of God – Germany, 1977

“On this river, God never finished his creation.”

At the core of Werner Herzog’s 1977 film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, is a struggle between the destiny that many 16th century Europeans believed was rightfully theirs and nature. These Europeans believed it was their destiny to conquer the world, to forcefully spread their religion as they did, and to be handsomely rewarded for their efforts, for in their eyes, it was indeed God’s work that they were doing. The only things standing in their way was nature itself. In Herzog’s film, nature’s obstacles come in the form of dangerous forests that easily conceal those that have reasons to hide within, mountain paths so steep that one misstep could bring death, endless rivers that only give the illusion of leading to their much sought after destination, the mythical city of gold known as El Dorado. And yet the Europeans still come – with their wives, daughters, slaves, animals, cannons, sedan-chairs, religious symbols, national flags – because in the minds of kings and explorers, destiny will always defeat nature.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God begins by showing viewers a long parade of men attempting to trudge their way down the treacherous wet mountains of Peru. Accompanying Spaniards dressed in full conquistador attire are two women, slaves of both African and Peruvian descent, and a Spanish monk, Brother Gasper de Carvajal (Del Negro). The scene is a long one, giving viewers a sense of how many people are making the journey and just how dangerous it is. According to the film, what viewers are seeing is based on Brother Carvajal’s diary, the only record of what has come to be known as the “Lost Voyage.” As the journey proceeds, “Indian” slaves begin dying of illnesses. This is mentioned as if it is more on an inconvenience to the Spaniards than a calamity, and the only remorse heard is over their inability to give them proper Christian burials. Later, a Peruvian aborigine is murdered after he places a Bible to his ear in an attempt to hear the word of God and says he can’t hear anything. This, according to Brother Carvajal, is an act of blaspheme, punishable by death.

Much of what transpires in the film has to do with the Spaniard’s ill-fated attempt to reach El Dorado by river. The objective seems rather simple: take several rafts down the river, make contact with the natives, obtain food and information, and return. The task is placed in the capable hands of Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra), and the men assigned to him seem up to the challenge. Don Pedro is the kind of man we’re used to seeing in charge of expeditions in films – mature, thoughtful, handsome, elegant with words, and respectable. In a perfect world, he would command the undying respect and loyalty of the men in his charge. His second-in-command, Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), is quite the opposite – fatalistic, unkempt, filled with delusions of wealth and power. Physically, Aguirre has more in common with Richard III than he does with Ursua. He walks as if he were a monster from an early black-and-white horror film. His right shoulder hangs noticeably lower than the left one, and when he walks, the left side of his body leads him, as if half of his body had gone limp after a severe heart attack. And like Shakespeare’s immoral character, Aguirre has a plan that involves betrayal and murder.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God may be frustrating for some viewers, for it moves at a pace that some viewers may describe as tediously slow. However, there’s a reason for this. It creates the sense of endless desperation, of an unending cycle of drifting in one direction, unable to return, yet also unable to arrive. In addition, the film follows characters that viewers know will not succeed. For some viewers, this may be difficult. For me, it was fascinating, though. We watch as they legally declare their independence from Spain and install the only member of the nobility among them, Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling), as Emperor of El Dorado. Moreover, they set up a military chain of command and a system for solving legal disputes. And they speak of having magnificent destinies, as if El Dorado were going to be some kind of Utopian state, for to each of them, El Dorado represents something completely different, perhaps even something noble. The priest sees it as the fulfillment of God’s will, the slave sees it as a chance at true freedom, the common soldier sees it as an opportunity to finally achieve economic parity with the monarchy and ruling class that dispatched them here. Right goals; wrong place.

Those familiar with Herzog’s movies know how he feels about humanity’s encroachment into nature and the way nature has been transformed into something friendly and magical by cartoons and animated films. In a Disney film, nature would likely come alive and help the explorers, thereby recognizing the nobility of the quest. In Aguirre, the Wrath of God, nature is completely indifferent. The animals don’t help them, the people who live in the forests don’t run out to greet them, and the river just keeps bending. Nature doesn’t even provide them with food or medicine to ward off the dementia that is coming. It simply doesn’t care. Therefore, if Aguirre truly represents the wrath of God, viewers may wonder just whom God’s wrath is aimed at. (on DVD)

4 stars

*Aguirre, the Wrath of God is in German with English subtitles.

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