Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Aguirre, The Wrath of God


Dir: Werner Herzog (Heart of Glass; Fitzcarraldo; Where the Green Ants Dream; Grizzly Man)

My first Herzog film, and the first time I have seen Klaus Kinski in a starring role, this tale of greed and madness is wholly disconcerting. The film is creepy, disjointed, uncomfortable and dissonant. And this mood matches the story perfectly; few films that I have seen have created an atmosphere so effectively to reinforce its themes.

A group of Spaniards travel through the jungle looking for El Dorado, beset by natives and plagued by internal strife. A mutiny along the way brings the insane Aguirre (Kinski) to power, and he leads them on a suicidal river trip. The movie is filmed on location in an unforgiving jungle, and most of the movie takes place on a raft in the heat of the sun. A puppet rebel government is set up by the rafters, with a Lord of the Flies set of challenges confronting the conquerors. But more damning than leadership struggles is the jungle, cannibals, the lack of food, and of course the futility of their fictional destination. The maniacal greed and bloodlust of the conquistadors slips into insanity, and the film records this decent with lingering and uncomfortable shots of the soldier's despair.

The film is quite a technical acheivement, with some remote shots that required a huge dedication from the crew. The opening scene, with hundreds of men scaling a steep mountain shrouded in fog, was spellbinding when you consider what work had to go into it and is worth the price of admission itself.

Kinski is freaky as Aguirre, one of those actors who really seems to be insane. Physically he is menacing, and there is abolsutely no sign of artifice in his cruelty. Herzog often gets out of the way and just lets Kinsky go, no background score or camera edits. At other times the camera frantically moves as we circle conspirators or bob along with the ill fated raft, leaving the viewer dizzy.

This is very difficult movie to describe, as so much of it is about mood and atmosphere. It's kind of like having a headache, hard to focus on and causing your brow to furrow. It is quite unlike any movie I have ever seen, and I strongly recommend it just as an experience.