Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) (Masterpiece)- A perfectly surreal approach to a realist aesthetic

Viewing Context:
LoveFilm. Been meaning to catch up on Herzog for some time now, so put the Kinski box-set on high priority and this film was the first to arrive.

Written and directed by the man himself Werner Herzog, who is at the minute, one of my favourite people in the world.

What happened:
In 1560 an expedition under the banner of Spain set out to find the mythical land of El Dorado; a place with alleged untold riches. After the hundreds in the initial expedition become bogged down in the extraneous conditions, a smaller party are sent ahead to scout for any signs. When the fella who’s appointed leader of this smaller party says that they must turn back, the scheming and tyrannical Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) leads a mutiny, appoints a new emperor (that he can control) and has the party write a letter addressed to the king of Spain, declaring that they are no longer under the flag of Spain but have declared themselves the new empire of El Dorado.

What I liked:
Animals: The use of real animals throughout the narrative is unparalleled in any other film I have seen. By featuring these untrained animals (well maybe the horses were, but I don't think the rat monkey things had any lessons) the film emphasises its grounding in reality (despite its simultaneous absurdity - see below). There is something about these animals that emphasises the unpredictability of nature and represents genuine intention; a certain rawness that is absent in most mainstream cinema.
Real, yet nuts: Even from the start, they had all this period gear on, but none of the camera work either tried to glamorise it, yet nor did it ‘try’ make it look authentically of that period. I felt it strange that this paradox existed in my head: the fact that because there were no gimmicks influencing me to naturalise what I was seeing, my film-conditioned brain saw it as less natural, yet being aware of this then made it more natural. Hopefully this confusing sentence makes perfectly clear what I mean about it being simultaneously realist and surrealist. The realist aesthetic and the use of animals grounds it as authentic in a way that had me convinced these were characters to take seriously. However, In complete contrast, the film mocks its own form with some outrageously surreal moments. For instance, a man continuing to count after having been decapitated. This is an extension of the way I feel Herzog constantly mocks the viewer, in a playful way, provoking reaction and demanding constant attention.
Exotic: despite intentionally poking fun at, and challenging its status as a realistic representation, I felt like it really was showing me something exotic, new and different without being so condescending as to say that it is showing the truth - as documentaries so frequently do. The pseudo-documentary approach to the location shooting on the Amazon, along with use of local peoples, and again the animals certainly aided this.

Pointlessness of empire: The silly rituals and the insistence of sticking to them. I.e. The trial, and the hanging, etc. At one point, while travelling along the river, the farcically newly appointed emperor of El Dorado just said “anything on the left and the right is now ours”, showing how ludicrously senseless and phony this process of Empire building is.
The realist/surrealist combination exists to accentuate this pointlessness as it makes half of it seem like a farce, while still making it clear that so many people take this ridiculous charade seriously. It may be set in the 17th century, but this farcical upkeep of traditions is evident now. Hence, the idiotic existence of that pointless monarchy of ours; so clearly a joke, but people take them so seriously (just see last week's hyperreal bullshit wedding and the attention it garnered).

Performance of the film:
Klaus Kinski as Aguirre. He is so twisted, unstable, edgy. He encapsulates what I outline above, managing to be believably real and completely original while still being an over the top caricature of a tyrant, hellbent on power and glory.

Scene of the film:
The scene when Aguirre calls the mutiny and pulls all the strings, appointing some hapless puppet as emperor and just controls the whole thing. The official procedure was one of the things illustrating the pointlessness of these institutions and traditions, yet that they are taken so seriously.


  1. Aguirre's creeping its way to the top of my Sofa Cinema re-viewing list as well. Herzog's always been one of my favourite directors, but I'm going off the whole 'ironic promotion of director as intrinsic part of the documentary' thing a bit lately. Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D was great and all, and the contemplation of all that had happened there 30,000 years ago was mind-boggling, but didn't you think in the end that the whole practical subject matter was a bit thin? My favourite film of all time (probably!) is still The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, where Herzog not only points out the ludicrous nature of celebrity, and its 'emperors new clothes' way of building its own momentum, but also the lack of any sort of consideration for the individual himself. While Kaspar, like Candide, shows a naive understanding which gets under the skin and puts them to shame. Have you (re-?)seen 'Even Dwarves Started Small' yet? I saw it for the first time recently, and found it really difficult - give it a go if you haven't!

  2. Well I'm afraid I haven't seen either of the films you mention above. My Herzog viewing is very limited. All his films are on high priority on LoveFilm, but Film4 have gone and ruined all that with their Films For Life series. I've been recording two or three films a day; ones I've neeeded to catch for some time. Having two jobs, a young family and what not, I am acruing more than I can watch, so might take a while. As soon as I'm up to date with all them, I will get back on Herzog binging.
    I completely agree on the Cave of Forgotten Dreams front. It was amazing and all; yeah the paintings had been there for ages, blah blah blah, but I thought it was an underuse of Herzog's imagination. He made an average documentary really interesting, but there weren't enough live animals in it (aside from the crocodile that is, which was my favourite part).
    On New German cinema doing 3D documentaryies, I saw Wenders' Pina 3D the other day, which I loved (though it had its faults).

    Cheers for the comment.
    - Mike -