After seeing Werner Herzog's recent documentary My Best Fiend about his five-time lead actor Klaus Kinski, and also the animated The Road to El Dorado, it seemed like a perfect time to go back and watch Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), which I had been wanting to see for years. The few images I saw from it in My Best Fiend really haunted me, much more so than anything else in that movie.
Though it's slightly less impressive on video, I was still riveted and awestruck. It's a truly amazing movie, an epic made from genius, stubbornness, and madness. It's the story of Lorenzo's search for El Dorado, the lost city of gold. Aguirre (Kinski) is one of the members of the party who ends up taking over a splinter faction and leading the men to their deaths. The whole movie is shot in the jungle and on the Amazon river, and it feels as alive as if it were shot there yesterday. The film is nearly 30 years old and the story five hundred years old and somehow it still seems vivid.
The film benefits from seeing My Best Fiend and knowing a few behind-the-scenes factoids. When it opens on the tremendous shot of an endless line of travelers winding down and around a mountain, and popping up just at the bottom of the frame, we know that there are normally clouds covering that mountain, and that they cleared just for that shot. Herzog says that he believes he had God on his side. What we don't tend to think about is that Herzog put himself through this ordeal as well, placing the camera in very narrow, slippery spots on this hillside.
We also learn from My Best Fiend that Kinski perfected a kind of twist-pivot that brought him snakelike into the camera's view, rather than simply marching into the shot and turning sideways. This shot is used toward the end, when the men are feverish and dying on the raft. Before long, Kinski is cradling his 15-year-old daughter's head and lurching around on the raft, frightening the hundreds of monkeys who have now taken over as its primary passengers on its out-of-control voyage to nowhere.
I think that one reason the film feels so alive is that Herzog never cheats. He never shoots an overhead perspective shot from the comfort of a helicopter. When Aguirre and his band are on their raft, Herzog is on the raft, too. We don't see it from a distance (until the very last shot). As the raft tumbles down the rapids, the camera has water spots on it. We know that they couldn't go back and get the shot again, or cut to a safe master shot. So the water spots made it to the final cut.
Roger Ebert, who considers this film one of the best ever made, calls it "foolhardy", and compares it to other mad masterworks like Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924) and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). Pauline Kael wrote about the "film folly" and lists Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (1976) and D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916). These are madmen whose visions are so monumental that whole crews must suffer intolerable conditions for unendurable lengths of time so that great foolhardy films may be made. I was thinking, now that Herzog and Coppola have both been tamed, who is left to make these mad films? Titanic wanted to be such a film, but it was too controlled and its script was too childish. No, it could be that Aguirre is one of the last of these kinds of films. Herzog tried to duplicate it with Fitzcarraldo (1982), which is only a fraction as interesting or poetic as Aguirre.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God remains a treasure. It's a glimpse into a visionary's mind. It's a passionate love/hate poem to the jungle and to Klaus Kinski. It's an incredible statement about the nature of man. And it's as potent today as the day it opened. Hopefully one day it will be available on DVD with Herzog commentary, but for now, the VHS tape, by New Yorker was enough to make me a believer.
Monday, March 17, 2008
Review of Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Here's a film review of Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God.