Is there anyone in the movie industry today with such an eclectic and brilliant body of work as Werner Herzog? In his career he’s tackled a whole range of subjects and projects, each one seemingly more outlandish than the last. While he’s had his fair share of duds, including a hideously misjudged remake of Nosferatu, when he’s on form he makes more interesting films than almost any director going. Some of his best work though involves the jungle. In Fitzcarraldo he dared to try to pull a ship over a mountain, while in Cobra Verde he examined the slave trade. In this early film he tells the story of a group of Spanish Conquistadors who come unstuck while travelling into the depths of the South American Amazon.
Frustrated by their slow pace, and having yet to discover the mythical city of gold they’re looking for, the expedition’s commander decides to split the group into two and send one section ahead as a scouting party. If they don’t return within a fixed period then they’ll turn back. The film then follows this group, and in particular the ferociously ambitious Aguirre, who clearly wants to be leader himself. As the film progresses he schemes and plots to take over, slowly going mad in the process (although to a certain extent its questionable how sane he ever was to begin with). Played by the magnetic Klaus Kinski, Aguirre is easily one of the best screen monsters of all time with a stare that could knock a hole in a barn door at fifty paces. Rarely has the effects of power on someone ever been shown so harrowingly on-screen.
This is one of the central problems with Aguirre, The Wrath of Gad as a film though. It’s very hard to convey its brilliance using just words. You really have to see it to get the full impact. It’s almost like a dream you can’t quite remember, a strange mishmash of operatic images and actions mixed together like a surrealist painting. At one point while they float along the river on their raft they see a ship in the branches of a nearby tree. Later the raft is swarmed by tiny monkeys as Aguirre delivers his final monologue, an angry rant against the world and God.
It should be noted at this point that Herzog’s movie owes a certain amount to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Both in terms of how easily man is corrupted and the fact that the further they go up river the stranger everything gets. As many commentators have pointed out, it also clearly influenced Francis Ford Coppola when he was making Apocalypse Now. The lack of dialogue, surreal images and repetitive but haunting soundtrack gives the film an almost hypnotic appeal. The real star of the show though is the landscape. The opening shot is of the Spanish troops descending a mountain through the clouds, while later the forests by the river look almost primeval in their rawness. It feels alien in a way that James Cameron and Avatar, even with their multi-million dollar budgets, could never hope to match. If you can find a copy then this is a film that everyone should see at least once in their lives.
Here is the trailer for Aguirre, the Wrath of God: