Sunday, December 21, 2008

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Sometimes, a film requires a review to make sense of it, or to examine what the reader, and subsequent viewer, ought to get from the film. But in this case, I'm not certain Aguirre needs sense imposed; it's an experience, a nightmare played out in slow motion. You might not even know you're dreaming until you wake up.

From everything I can find, the making of the film was just as bizarre and nightmarish as the film itself. Part of this was due to the volatile relationship between director Werner Herzog and star Klaus Kinski, and part was undoubtedly due to it being shot with some spontaneity on location in the jungle of Peru. The story concerns a splinter group from Gonzalo Pizarro's search for El Dorado, sent off to find supplies and, if possible, the City of Gold itself. Floating down river in a raft, things quickly go awry for the group of soldiers, native slaves, and two women (the mistress of the leader, Ursua, and Aguirre's daughter). Aguirre, though he refrains from taking control in name, moves among the men like some cross between Richard III and Kurtz, hunched and brooding and seemingly arbitrary in his ever-more-grandiose plans. It's unclear whether Aguirre is the wrath of God, or is experiencing it.

The secret to this film, I think, is in how quietly Herzog deals with events and moments that, in another director's hands, would have been show pieces designed to rope in the audience. Herzog never does; the long takes are anti-climactic but add to the sense of realistic unreality. In the meantime, human nature is on full display, as ugly as Herzog can make it. But he does not let us get too involved. The film is cold, distant, and never exploitative. I was astonished by two more things when I saw it: that I had never seen it before, and that it was made in 1972. It's a gorgeously filmed movie, but requires some patience; while it is never boring, it is not Hollywood's romantic historical adventure. Klaus Kinski's bizarre performance is indescribable, and the film hangs together so well that it is indeed an escape, albeit to a place one does not wish to visit. At least not permanently.

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