When this blogathon was announced, it was a conundrum for me which movie to pick. There are so many great films not made in the English language.
Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God) won out. It’s indisputably a cinematic masterpiece, but I also picked it because I was privileged to meet Mr. Herzog twice. I have a poster from the movie signed by him, including a quote from the movie, which hangs on my wall to this day.
(In case you’re wondering: yes, he’s really that eccentric, but he can also be very nice.)
Loosely based on historical events, the film concerns Spanish soldier Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) under the command of conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who is seeking El Dorado. After traversing the Andes with hundreds of slaves, cannons, a monk (Del Negro) and two women, the expedition soon runs out of supplies. Pizarro chooses a band of men headed by Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) to take on a mission down the Amazon River in search of supplies. Against his better judgement, he allows the two women, Ursúa’s mistress Inés (Helena Rojo) and Aguirre’s young daughter Flores (Cecilia Rivera) to join them.
The journey is fraught with danger. Aguirre, furious when Ursúa decides to turn back, seizes the opportunity to stage a mutiny. He puts in charge a foolish nobleman named Fernando de Guzmán (Peter Berling). Ursúa is wounded during the mutiny and becomes Aguirre’s captive. Inés appeals for help to the monk, Gaspar de Carvajal, who brushes her off and informs her the Church always supports strength.
Aguirre is an authoritarian leader who does not stand for any sort of disloyalty. He exhorts his followers to stay with him so they will enjoy untold riches and power. The dangers of the jungle and river claim more and more people, including his daughter, until he is left floating alone on a raft filled with monkeys and dead bodies, ranting about how he will conquer the entire continent.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God is one of those movies that takes hold of you from the first moments. Herzog opens it with a shot of the Andes mountains covered in clouds. Soon, you can see the expedition traveling down the steep mountain. (My dad, who saw it before I did, marveled, “Cannons! They were dragging CANNONS down the mountain!”) The women are dressed in typical European clothing of the period, in dresses made of velvet and satin, as well as the neck ruffs popular at the time. The men are encased in armor. Hardly practical jungle trekking gear. They also have hundreds of Inca slaves in chains.
It’s a stunning portrait of conquest and folly. They have conquered the Incan Empire but the Incans get the last laugh, sort of, by telling them of the fabled city of El Dorado—which of course, doesn’t exist. Hence, they proceed on a journey through terrain that is completely unfamiliar to them, which not only threatens their lives, but makes it easy for someone like Aguirre to seize power because he can so easily play on their fears based in ignorance.
Ursúa is not a bad or even necessarily a weak leader. His undoing is the belief that Aguirre would never move against the Spanish Crown. He does not recognize the audacity in Aguirre, who is clever enough to install a stupid man like de Guzmán as a puppet leader because he has royal blood.
(If any of this is sounding relevant to modern politics, yes, I noticed it during this viewing, too.)
Aside from the political themes of the story, I think this film, like most of Herzog’s other work including his documentaries, is about the obsessive pursuit of one’s dreams. The filming of Aguirre was famously fraught with problems. After all, the film crew had to contend with many of the same challenges of the Peruvian jungle as the conquistadors did. The confrontations between Herzog and star Kinski are almost as much the stuff of legend as El Dorado. Supposedly (though Kinski denied it) Herzog even threatened Kinski with a gun at one point.
Aside from meeting Mr. Herzog, I once was lucky enough to meet someone who worked on Fitzcarraldo, another of his films set in the Peruvian jungle. He said he would never forget watching him direct the film speaking German, Spanish, and Quechua all at the same time. What impressed him the most was his intensity, he said. Intense is a pretty good way to sum up the experience of watching his films.
So what’s the quote from the movie on my poster?
“Monk, do not forget to pray, lest God’s end be uncomely.”
Like I said. Intense.