Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God is an exploration into the depths of human nature, revealing the depravity and greed that can potentially governone’s heart. Aguirre’s quest into a South American jungle in search of the lost city of gold is clearly emblematic of Hitler’s period of rule,both dictators leading people in a futile pursuit toward an unquestionably catastrophic end. As Aguirre’s group floats down the languid river atop their increasingly dilapidated raft, the environment itself seems to reject them. They face weather and terrain problems as well as unseen indigenous assassins, who silently shoot poisoned darts at members of the expedition. These swift, barely acknowledged deaths demonstrate the fragility of life in such circumstances, though interestingly enough, not one member of the party ever comes to the realization that the gold they’re looking for will likely have no value by the time they’ve reached their destination.
It is also worthwhile to note the Christian paradigm associated with the group.The priest is the chief record keeper, though he too succumbs to the irrational greed that pushes the expedition forward. The group forges ahead, linking their quest for gold with a desire to spread Christian doctrine and reform the natives.The contrast between the “civilized” and “heathen” cultures is far less stark than one might imagine, and upon taking a look at the chaos that prevails aboard the raft, the viewer may well wonder if they’d perhaps fare better staying in grass huts with the cannibals. The community aboard the raft becomes a civilization unto itself, as Aguirre appoints a puppet dictator of an emperor and arbitrarily claims the land they pass along their way.
Eventually their isolation leads them to descend into a Lord of the Flies-like anarchic state. The situation facilitates discussions of what can happen when good intentions have bad results and can suggest that we must rely on more than in internal moralcompass when discerning right from wrong.
These issues and themes are emphasized visually in chilling moments of self-reflexivity that seem to reach through the screen right to the viewer. For example, a native stops and looks pleadingly into the camera when Aguirre forces him to play the pan pipes to bolster group morale; and when Aguirre himself proclaims his calling on earth to serve as God’s wrath, his manic, bulging eyes gazing right into those of the audience members. Scattered throughout the film are instancesof stylized, almost comic violence: a man pierced with a spear delivers a quick soliloquy to the camera before toppling overboard and a dismembered head finishes the sentence it had started prior to decapitation. Such images are not necessarily unsuitable for younger viewers, but would be most beneficial if accompanied by discussion following the film.
Aguirre is a pretty impressive film that can be understood on several levels. On the surface, it’s the true story of Spanish Conquistador Don Lope de Aguirre, who gave up everything in a quest to find the mythic city, El Dorado. Owing much to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Aguirre tells the dark tale of a journey down the Amazon paralleling a descent into madness. On other levels, Aguirre is a condemnation of imperialism, an exploration of the timeless struggle of man versus nature, and, made in 1972 and 73, could also be seen as allegorical criticism of the American presence in Vietnam.
Aguirre is not the easiest movie to watch: it is intentionally slow paced and quiet, but not long, and is an important film by an important director. Frequently heralded as the romantic visionary of German cinema, director Werner Herzog is famous in equal parts for his brilliance and his eccentricity. With the sometimes aid of state funding, Herzog has been turning out both features and documentaries since the late 1960’s. Watch for how Herzog uses sound (or rather lack of sound) in conjunction with static cinematography to create certain emotional effects and portray the impassive supremacy of nature. Silence is used to create or punctuate suspense, awe, fear, drudgery, and eventually madness, and the photography accents the inferiority of men to God and His awesome creations. Herzog’s storytelling doesn’t manipulate the audience or string us along like the Hollywood filmmaking we are used to, but viewers will likely find it incites an unconscious paranoia that brings us into the characters’ world. A great film to supplement classroom studies on early European Imperialism or the Vietnam War, Aguirre, the Wrath of God contains moderate violence and intense situations.