Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Werner Herzog | 1hr 34min

At one point in the final act of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, after each member of Don Lope de Aguirre’s expedition has either succumbed to the ruthless Peruvian wilderness or their own madness, one of them makes note of seeing a wooden ship lodged high up in the branches of a tree. Another brushes it off as a hallucination, and we may believe that to be the case, until we cut right to that surreal image.
Up until this point, Werner Herzog has held back from submerging us into the confusion of his explorers, grounding the piece in handheld camerawork that allows us to see them as they are – an absurd band of conquistadors who are dressed more appropriately for the royal courts of 16th century Spain than the unforgiving jungles of South America. And yet in this moment, at the peak of their insanity, this boat perched in a tree forces us to reconsider our own assessment of reality. If it is real, then this is a fearsome demonstration of the forest’s true destructive capability. If it isn’t, then these men are mentally too far gone to navigate their way home, let alone to the fabled country of El Dorado.

A hint of surrealism – is this vision a demonstration of nature’s raw power or humanity’s confounding delusion?

Above them, low-hanging clouds shroud rocky mountains with steep slopes dropping into thick, verdant jungles. High-pitched choral harmonies accompany these epic images, and yet there is something off about this music. In fact, these aren’t voices at all, but rather a choir-organ hypnotically ringing out an inhuman drone, lingering in the uncanny valley of sound. This may have once been a spiritual realm, but God has long abandoned this part of His creation. Now, it has grown into a dense mass of foliage, broken up only by coursing brown rivers which can always be heard even when they are not visible. This domain of natural chaos does not stand down peacefully for foreigners trying to introduce their own ideas of order.

The camera tilting down a Peruvian mountain in the opening shot as an inhuman choir rings out, before settling on the trail of conquistadors and nobles hiking a dangerous path.

Leading the cast as the delusional Aguirre is Klaus Kinski, whose pale blue eyes seem to be both glassed over as if in a trance, and widened in sheer, haunted terror. The combination of both these expressions suggests a man who quietly registers the danger around him, and yet who cannot help but bury his fear deep into his subconscious, lest it should distract from his own ambition.
The overgrown branches, trunks, and vines of his environment frequently obstruct and crowd out frames, consuming Aguirre and his fellow conquistadors in the rainforest’s overgrown vegetation as they try to hold farcical trials and elections. Herzog often blocks them in staggered compositions, sketching out their disorientation which only serves to fuel their self-defeating acts of meaningless violence. They burn down a village with no clear purpose, kill a native when he expresses ignorance of the Christian bible, and push their only horse off the raft when they start to find it annoying. Even the diary entries which have structured this narrative through an organised measurement of time are eventually lost, as one man drinks the ink thinking it is medicine. In a pathetic attempt to reinvigorate the spirits of his men, Aguirre encourages his musical companion to play his pan flute, but this breathy, jaunty tune simply feels like a cruel taunt as it underscores rhythmic montages of the sprawling jungle.

The thick, verdant vegetation, low-lying clouds, and brown rivers at direct odds with these Spanish invaders. This seems to be an important text for Francis Ford Coppola in the production of Apocalypse Now.

In bookending this film with two all-time magnificent shots, Herzog contrasts the start and end of Aguirre’s maddening journey. No longer can he sit and be awed by the terror of his environment – now, he is completely consumed by his own ego, and Herzog’s dizzying 360 shot effectively turns him into the centre of his own world. Around him, the monkeys of the forest snatch away the remaining supplies, and the bodies of his companions drift away down the river to decompose. In these final seconds, all at once, nature has never been so frightening, and humanity has never been so stubbornly delusional.

A 360-degree tracking shot circling Aguirre’s meagre raft in the very last shot, isolating him as a god in his own mind, destined to perish like the others.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is currently streaming on SBS On Demand.

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