Werner Herzog remains one of the most enigmatic and visionary directors in the world. When he’s not making documentaries about people matching – or even exceeding – his own eccentricity, he’s making films that avoid fitting to type. Unrestrained by genre, he seemingly makes films according to whatever arouses his darting curiosity at a given moment. Aguirre, Wrath of God is the film that brought this strange old man into the film public’s eye, and is possibly the finest example of his hallucinatory style of film making.
Aguirre is based on the diaries of Spanish missionary Gaspar De Varvajal, and follows a Spanish expedition led by Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) in search of the fabled treasure of El Dorado. Pitted against the hostile environment of the jungle, and an enemy who is constantly striking without revealing themselves, it soon becomes clear that the expedition is on a path that can only lead to self-destruction.
Right from the start, Herzog dazzles us with the ambition of his project. It’s the 16th Century, and a Spanish expedition is climbing down a precarious path down a mist-covered mountain in the Peruvian jungle. There are no sets or stages here, and this massive shot, brilliantly capturing man’s futile struggle against nature, is exemplary of the whole film. Herzog was determined to give the film a naturalistic, documentary feel, and does so impeccably.
Aguirre, Wrath of God is accompanied by a sparingly-used musical score that enhances the mesmerising, delirious mood of the film. The song, which can best be described as a heavenly choir, is effective at creating a distance between the viewer and the characters on screen, and encourages us to sit back and enjoy it as an allegory on human drive-turned-obsession, rather than view it as a dramatic scenario. It’s hard to feel sorrow for any of the individual characters as they steadily fall prey to the jungle, but you’d have to be truly soulless not to feel sombre at the expedition’s massive failure of human endeavour.
Aguirre, Wrath of God is not a film that conforms to narrative rules of dramatic development. As soon as the mad-eyed Aguirre seizes power of the expedition, there is an air of inevitability about what’s going to happen. Despite this, the film is utterly mesmerising. Herzog’s camera lingers on the dense, hostile terrain of the amazonian jungle, or on its violently running rivers, and creates a dwarfing effect on the people attempting to traverse it.
And yet there is also something in these shots that makes them reach out of the narrative and into our own souls; watching the brutality of the Amazon jungle in all its natural splendour translates into a reflection on our own frailty in the face of nature at its most sublime.
Kinski does justice to Herzog’s wild vision by infusing Don Lope de Aguirre with a growingly menacing madness. The more distant the expedition’s hopes of reaching El Dorado become, the more he affiliates himself with the titular wrath of God. So detached is the character from humanity that one has to wonder by the end whether he indeed really is the embodiment of the wrath of God, sent down to prove the shortcomings of human beings in the face of nature and their own greed.
Aguirre, Wrath of God is a film that reaches out to the sublime. Through a combination of incredible scenery shooting, entrancing music, and performances that are dreamlike rather than realistic, Aguirre, Wrath of God is an incredibly affective film. There are few films that better express the self-destructiveness of human greed and obsession than this.