Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) | review

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“It was worthwhile for what you see on the screen. Who cares if every grey hair on my head I call ‘Kinski’?”

Werner Herzog’s triumphant anti-epic concerning man’s crazed will to power – over nature, other men and adverse shooting conditions – is now being brought back to the big screen by the British Film Institute in all its compelling, insane glory.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God was Herzog’s first collaboration with genius/maniac Klaus Kinski, who works to evil, haughty effect in the role of the vaingloriously ambitious Don Lope de Aguirre. Towering, glowering, hyper-intelligent and totally unhinged, Aguirre hacks like a zealous devil through an unwelcoming Amazon on his singularly quixotic quest. With the mythical treasures of Eldorado as his goal, promises of boundless wealth, fame and power burning in his fevered imagination, Aguirre is the ostensible leader of an ever-more rag-tag group of lost conquistadors as they stumble towards their stifling Equatorial graves. With the uncomfortable nearness of the jungle translated vividly on screen, its dispassion and tactile intrusiveness so directly expressed, you imagine the film crew feeling a great kinship for this group of doomed fools as they followed their own bloody-minded leader into the unknown.

The film follows its own linear path, heading towards its destination with unremitting purpose, not so much written as bluntly forced into being. Which isn’t to suggest it is in any way brazen or simplistic. Rather, it’s incredibly nuanced, perversely conjuring poetic tragedy and weightiness through being light and actually somewhat silly. As Aguirre, Kinski’s performance is totally absurd and hilarious, but you wouldn’t dream of laughing within 20 miles of his face.

Within a barrage of sledgehammer blows, Herzog is engaging in subtle connections. Though the film is intently focused on its lead, there are some fantastic supporting characters: the noble yet short-sighted Don Pedro and his beautiful wife Inez, blind to the tide of fate that’s turning against them; the corpulent and childishly entitled Don Fernando; the grubby and sycophantic priest Brother Gaspar, calmly reshaping his influence to suit the interests of whoever happens to be the group alpha of the moment. And, of course, the Amazon itself: churning brown water framed by impenetrable jungle, untamed and unforgiving.

Herzog’s genius lies not just in his ambition. It’s in his intuitive feel for what lies beneath, the hidden nature of things. Stripping away all the bombast and bullshit he shows the stickily glistening pulse at the core. From the breathless opening shot, men and women the size of ants forging their hesitant way down a mist-swathed Andean face, he places a supposedly cultured humanity back in the cycle of that same fierce nature which for years it seems to have been deluded enough to believe it had escaped. Back in the midst, oft-vaunted civility is openly revealed as a lie.

And there’s the kicker: on some level, everything which seems alien to us about what this film portrays is actually incredibly, intimately close at hand. As remote as Don Aguirre is, a coldly burning star in the void, like all anti-heroes there’s something painfully knowable about him. Despite the grandstanding, his motives are as simple, as proximate – as inane and ultimately pointless – as our own. There’s an absurdly comedic horror that as everything falls apart he only grows more certain; that, in the face of impeding failure, he’s only more committed to what he sees as the authenticity of his actions.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God is on limited release now. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.

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