Aguirre: The Wrath of God - A Fascinating Descent Into Madness

                        To watch Aguirre: The Wrath of God is to encounter one of those rare films that sits with you long after you have finished watching it. Since the earliest days of cinema, one of the principle rules of film-making is that the actors never look directly into the camera. In Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Klaus Kinski, starring as the lead character, breaks that rule near the end of the film when he looks directly into Werner Herzog's camera and, directly at the audience, and declares, "I am the wrath of God." It is a startling, bone-chilling moment in a stunning film. 

                       Director Werner Herzog was barely 30 when he made his defining work. Aguirre, Wrath of God is not just a great movie but is both a landmark film and a magnificent social metaphor. This rivetingly shot movie is a odyssey about Spanish conquistadors' ill-fated trip through Peru's Indian-inhabited jungles and down the treacherous Huallaga river. 

       Aguirre takes place in 1561, after the Spaniards, under Pizarro, have conquered the Incan empire in Peru. The main narrative follows a small group of Spanish explorers who are searching for the fabled golden city of El Dorado. They are led by Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra), whose second-in-command is Aguirre (Kinski). Other members of the party include Ursua's wife, Inez, Aguirre's 15-year-old daughter, Flores (Cecilia Rivera), a fat nobleman, and an African slave, a Catholic monk whose diary entries supply the narration. 

           Traveling deep into the heart of South America on large wooden rafts, the explorers encounter setback after setback. In the face of desolation, Aguirre maintains obsessive faith in the reality of his dreams, weaving tales of his future glory. Disease and madness begin to set in on the members of the party, and Herzog allows the film to slowly lose its grip on reality, becoming more detached and surreal.

                For Werner Herzog, cinema is an active, participatory art—one in which the creation of a work requires the practitioner to actually live it, as truth comes most compellingly from an artist's firsthand experience with his subject matter. He is often not simply the storyteller but, also, a willing and essential participant, his presence fundamentally tangled up in the final product, as in Aguirre. 

                As with all Herzog's movies, the landscape is paramount.  The camera is exceptionally mobile even as the action is shot midstream on wooden rafts. Each bend in the river compels the spectator to consider how this movie was actually made. Every shot suggests some sort of ordeal. The opening shot is particularly, as the expedition is seen in extreme long shots weaving its way down the mountains through the fog to the banks of the river. The audience is positioned with the expedition throughout the journey. What lies beyond the river on its overgrown banks-- a source of beauty and danger-- remains a mystery throughout the film. 

              Werner Herzog went off the deep end to make his film, which was as crazed a venture as that of its protagonists. The cast and crew actually went into the heart of the Amazon jungle, spending days on rafts, coping with the heat, isolation and fever. This was the first collaboration between the erratic Kinski and Herzog. It's been told that Kinski himself lost his mind, in making this movie and wanted to leave but Herzog pulled a gun on him and forced him to finish the film. 

              With his strange, stilted walk, his fierce blue eyes, and his extreme, chiseled features, Kinski is a formidable presence on screen. Although he doesn't do much more than project paranoid hyper-vigilance, his posturing commands the screen. His character contrives fake trials and secret executions, expresses an ultimate desire to "forge history. Kinski is, as Herzog once described him, "the only true demon of the cinema."

             One could deem it uneventful or aimless or slow, but that's reading it wrong. This isn't a movie about plot twists, complex relationships or over the top action. It's, as if you had a 35mm camera in 1561 and you followed Spanish soldiers into the Peruvian rain-forest, recording the expedition as it drifts through the immensity of nature. This is also a film which embraces the growing insanity which takes over the men in general. Despite the haunting and hypnotic power of the film, it runs at only 95 minutes. But while it is over quite quickly, the film sits with you far beyond the running time.

                Aguirre: The Wrath of God is a haunting masterpiece of existential cinema.


Aguirre: The Wrath of God - IMDb

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