Acting as the first strand in a thread coursing through his entire oeuvre, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God examines the paradox struck between nature’s beauty and barbarity, likening the existence of human consciousness and its accompanying ego to a fulfilling, but futile, act of defiance. The brazen Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) embodies Herzog’s vision of opposition, bellowing in the face of authority and fragility, clamoring to take dominion over animal, habitat, and deity. The enormity and impenetrable precipitation of the Andes function as Aguirre’s adversary and Herzog’s personification of God, their lack of remorse and magnitude further amplified by the entrancing stagger of Thomas Mauch’s handheld photography and nebulous drone of Popul Vuh’s sonic evocations. By invoking a dream amidst the severity of the untamed wild, Herzog affixes divinity and infallibility to the natural order, transforming man’s venture to survive and conquer into a Sisyphean nightmare.
Pursuing the lost riches of El Dorado and supplementary outposts for the ever-expanding Spanish Empire, a party of conquistadors brave the onyx mud and suffocating brush of the Amazon, sacrificing their safety and sanity in the name of prestige. Third in command behind Pizarro and Ursúa, Aguirre asserts his authority by riding roughshod over his febrile slaves, hastening the caravan forward despite dreadful precipices and sodden terrain. He epitomizes man at his most pragmatic, abandoning ethics in the name of triumph and commiserating only when it favors his Ahabian objective.
Aguirre’s fervid persistence and the tautness of the cinematography impart a claustrophobic confinement onto the seemingly infinite rainforest, enabling the humidity to permeate the lens and manifest the horrors of exposure and depth of the universe’s indifference. As the participatory camera jockeys for space and sight line over craggy trails and foaming rapids, an austere, cyclical rhythm consumes the narrative and its prisoners, signifying man’s slow march to the grave through the frantic paddle of a maelstrom-ensnared crew.
Each environmental pitfall endured by our Earthbound captives is precise and often lethal, but never malicious, countering the corporeal motivations of Aguirre’s moribund warriors and his own metastasizing megalomania. Yet, Herzog detects mankind’s essence in this cowardice and infirmity, bestowing a poignant elegy upon our resignation through a lingering portrait of an abandoned stallion, typifying man’s limitations through the tentative sway of his sunken muzzle.
The throes of delirium even bear traces of Herzogian grandeur and compassion, gracing the last pair of adventurers with visions of canoe-capped treetops and the sensation of nimble arrows piercing their fever-numbed flesh. The leisurely pace taken by the Grim Reaper has made ghosts of these transient vessels, but he grants the withering comandante a fleeting moment of lucidity to defy the inevitable and embody our vainest ambitions. In this final act of resistance, Aguirre throttles a writhing squirrel monkey and attests to his mastery before the frightened beast and unresponsive sky. As the camera encircles his solitary figure, stumbling to save face atop a sinking raft, we see existence incarnate, waging its war against the limits of the body and the contracting barriers of its cage.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, 1972)
Written and Directed by Werner Herzog
Photographed by Thomas Mauch