Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Directed by Werner Herzog

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In Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a Spanish expedition travels through the jungle in search of El Dorado, the mythical city of gold.  We meet the explorers as they struggle down a narrow trail in the mountains, each step possibly not far from the last.  The journey is already treacherous and growing more difficult.

With supplies running low, the man in charge decides they will turn around save for a smaller group of about forty men who will continue on raft down the river, scouting out the road ahead.  This smaller expedition is led by Don Pedro de Ursua (Ray Guerra), with Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as second in command.

Early in their journey one of the rafts gets stuck in the rapids.  The rest of the men stare on from the shore, not with expressions of fear but rather boredom.  Aguirre has the most disinterested stare of them all, and he notes in a calm voice how the men are doomed, and there is no sense in rushing out there to try and save them.

Ursua, on the other hand, doesn’t want to let the men die.  He tries to send out a rescue mission, but the next morning, before they can get to them, the man are dead, having been shot in the night.  Ursua then wants them recovered for proper Christian burials, but Aguirre, undeterred by higher authority, has a man loyal to him shoot a cannon at the raft, scattering body parts down the river.

So Aguirre is really the driving force behind all of this, as you probably assumed given the title.  He is a wrecking ball of determination.  When Ursua orders the expedition to return the way they came, Aguirre puts his foot down and insists they must continue.  He is deadset on finding El Dorado and the wealth it promises.

Aguirre’s appeal to ego excites enough of the expedition to lead a successful mutiny, killing two and wounding Ursua.  As a result of the mutiny, Aguirre leads a vote to have a plump nobleman elected as leader.  Aguirre then remains second in command.

It’s hard to chart any progress in their journey because we know their destination doesn’t exist.  Instead the crew members slowly die, whether by poisoned darts or arrows or otherwise.  They drift downriver, surrounded by hostile jungles, and before we know it there are only a handful of men left.

You get the sense that everything Herzog wants to say with this film comes in the final minutes.  Aguirre clings to his dream while others, even as they lay dying, wax poetic about how nothing is anything.

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Depending on how you see things they have lost their minds or they finally see the world for what it is.  This stands in stark contrast to Aguirre who remains so sure of himself, so narcissistic, so self-centered and obsessed.  Aguirre is a madman who grows increasingly volatile as the film progresses, and it’s his single-minded obsession that drives the rest of the crew to see through the world around them.

You see this type of dynamic in Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and even in the documentary behind the making of that film, Burden of Dreams.  I’m sure I incidentally watered down Aguirre‘s potential impact by watching it after those other films.  These three together could make up a Herzog jungle trilogy of obsession.

Herzog’s film here is about the act of searching.  It’s never about whether or not Aguirre will find what he’s looking for but rather what that search does to him and those around him.

It’s an oppressive search, and maybe you’ve felt that when you lost something important and find yourself re-checking areas of the house you’ve already combed over several times.  It’s definitely not there, but just maybe…

Of course, Aguirre has no hesitations.  He knows El Dorado is out there, and his complete and utter wrongness makes him something like the Terminator of misinformation.  His search deeper and deeper into the jungle terrorizes the rest of his crew.  By the end they will have all been picked off, and he is left alone.

With this steadfastness, Aguirre feels less like a character than an act of God, a force sent down to stir sh*t up with the rest of the people onboard.  As the dreadful mission continues, and the hope of El Dorado fades for the sane travelers, it began to feel like El Dorado was really death itself, a final relief from this arduous mission.

Maybe every death isn’t so literal, instead just a manifestation of each person’s faith.  They die because they don’t believe.  Or maybe they die because they fear death.  Who knows.  Either way Aguirre isn’t among them.  He is immune to whatever afflicts them, whether that’s just sensibility or a lack of faith.

The story is simple and succinct, a man searches for something that isn’t there.  The journey within this film has to do with the poetry of the jungle, of the world Herzog creates.

It’s an oppressive landscape, fruitless and uncaring.  Death is everywhere, and yet it’s always from afar.  We see the doomed raft from Aguirre’s perspective, across the river.  The raft’s inhabitants don’t recognize what Aguirre and the audience do.  Other characters are killed by spears and arrows thrown from offscreen.  They can (and do) die at any minute, but always from a distance.  The danger in this case is unspectacular, just consistent.  It’s everywhere and as natural as a rainstorm.

Are we supposed to leave with the impression that such a treacherous environment was brought upon by Aguirre himself or that this is just the way the world is?  Maybe it’s that Aguirre, ‘God’s wrath,’ is a natural state of being, a part of all humans.  It’s the force that propels us forward, searching for something that may not exist.  It’s an attempt to understand the world, calcified and perverted, turning into something more promising but less fulfilling.

Something about all of this feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Which came first, Aguirre’s obsession or the world that slowly strangles him?

Up Next: American Made (2017), All the Real Girls (2003), The Seventh Continent (1989)


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