not in our stars, but in ourselves
Aside from his (harrowing) texting-while-driving PSA, Werner Herzog’s oeuvre has been an unexplored jungle to me. I know what he’s about, and I’ve read/watched interviews, but I’d never actually sat through one of his movies until last night. And gee whiz, what a movie.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a dramatization of several real-life conquistadors. Just after Christmas Day, 1560, a large group of conquistadors and their recently conquered Incan slaves march over the Andes and through the Peruvian rainforest in search of El Dorado. Their commander, Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés), orders a troop of 40 men to go ahead downriver to scout. If they don’t return in a week, they’ll be presumed lost, and Pizarro will lead the rest back the way they came. Pizarro names Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) as the mission’s leader, and Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as Ursúa’s second-in-command. They’re joined by several dozen natives, Ursúa’s mistress, Aguirre’s daughter, a lazy nobleman, and a Dominican friar. The group sets out on three rafts, down the raging Orinoco River, and things go wrong almost immediately. One raft gets caught in an eddy, and is swept to the other side of the river. The two remaining rafts dock across from their hapless fellow conquistadors and slaves, but there’s nothing to be done: overnight, during a struggle, the trapped raft is apparently besieged by natives, and seven bodies lie dead and bloody on the battered little raft. The friar wants to recover the bodies to give them a proper Christian burial, but Aguirre – not willing to let such things slow them down – instructs one of the soldiers to fire a cannon at the raft across the river. After the treacherous river sweeps away their rafts, Ursúa orders the group to return to Pizarro. Aguirre rebels, and declares that they are now independent of Spain and that the nobleman Don Fernando de Guzmán (Peter Berling) is the new emperor of El Dorado. The farther downriver they go, the crazier they all go – Aguirre especially. He proclaims himself “Wrath of God,” and lashes out violently against anyone who dares to oppose him. Basically: shit happens. Lots and lots and lots of it.
The plot, however, is hardly the point. The point is the absolutely insane location shoot that is Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Due to the low-budget nature of the production, and to Herzog’s own tendencies, there was just no money for stuntmen, special effects, or any of the usual movie tricks. In other words, Herzog really did bring his cast and crew deep into the Peruvian rainforest. He really did make them climb down a mountain while laden with cannons, livestock, sedan chairs, and more. He really did set them adrift on river rapids while they clung to dinky little handmade rafts. He really did unleash a hundred or so monkeys onto an especially dinky raft while Kinski ranted and raved. There’s no stock footage, no trick photography, no CGI, no green screen – nothing except an especially driven, or crazy, director and a group of actors and crew members who probably didn’t quite know what they were getting themselves into. It’s auteur theory taken to its most absurd logical conclusion: the director as author, God as author, the director as God, etc.
Of what I know about Herzog, I gather that nature is, in some way, a frequent theme – specifically, its cruelty, indifference to, and disdain for us puny mortals. Herzog seems to have had the same disdain for his own cast and crew. Considering that he said (years after Aguirre, but it’s probably been his view for decades), “I believe the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder” – he seems quite eager to reproduce that universal truth in his films. To hell with health and safety regulations! Seriously, though, he must have thought – on some level, in some way – “well, other humans did this; we will do this, too.”
That’s one of the many striking things about Aguirre: this kind of thing really did happen. Perhaps the specifics of this film are dramatized, but the conquistadors really did go storming into the jungle, trusting God to protect them, only to find the decidedly ungodly chaos of rainforests and river rapids. All their fancy armor and weapons could subdue the natives, but it was all powerless against the new continent itself. To travel across the Atlantic into this unforgiving world, where – try as they may – none of their old rules could really apply (at least, not at first, not until centuries of brutal, stubborn bullheadedness), must have been something like going into space. It was completely unknown, completely remote. Pray as they might, they had to know that they would likely meet an end more lonely and gruesome than any they could have imagined. Herzog gets that, and imbues the film with the same kind of hopelessness as any of the deep-space scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Herzog is known as an opinionated son-of-a-gun (and I do remember checking out this Tumblr for some of his choice quotes, all in the form of motivational posters) – but he seems uninterested in setting any particular person or thing as the bad guy in Aguirre, and perhaps in any of his films. (You know I’m a sham. I’ll see others. I promise.) Aguirre is mad as a March hare, it’s true, but he’s not an antagonist in the sense of preventing the hero from achieving his aims. There are no heroes here, nor any real villains, just a group of cocky Europeans who blustered their way into a trap they couldn’t get out of. He doesn’t present the conquistadors as noble, or even especially wicked: they’re just arrogant and ignorant. He doesn’t present the natives’ situation as anything less than deplorable – but he doesn’t turn the movie into a call for justice, either. It’s wrong, but it happened. No need to try to graft any kind of call for greater social justice onto anything.
In short, Aguirre, the Wrath of God is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. From the scope of the production to the remarkably acute understanding of the futility of it all, it is one hell of a ride. I think I’ll watch it again.