Aguirre, the Art of Immersion

Werner Herzog, 1972

16th Century, South America — Don Lope de Aguirre (a sedate Klaus Kinski) leads a bunch of Spanish conquerors and Indian slaves in search of the (urban) legendary El Dorado, the city of gold. Although only second-in-command, Aguirre practically controls the people and the journey.

With Aguirre is his daughter Florés (one-movie actress Cecilia Rivera), to whom he pours his last tinge of humanity on. (Kinski as an affectionate father — this seems quite disturbing to me after happening upon Nastassja and Pola's stories.)

Also in the expedition are the following:

Ursua (Portuguese Brazilian film director Ruy Guerra, who kinda resembles a young and unshaven Werner Herzog) - the commander of the voyage. A threat to Aguirre's ambitious madness. The good guy.

Guerra as Ursua. Helena Rojo as Doña Inéz de Atienza.

Doña Inéz (Mexican mesmerizer Helena Rojo) - Ursua's mistress. A woman who persistently stands up against Aguirre's evil.

Carvajal (Del Negro) - a walking contradiction: a Catholic monk who preaches the word of God, yet he does nothing but yield to Aguirre's evil deeds. Herzog portrays the Catholic Church as an element of hypocrisy and destruction. To underline the Church's appalling pretense, Herzog uses Carvajal as the image of the Church's hypocrisy. (The "golden cross with studded jewels" line and Carvajal's hidden reaction right after is a perfect example.)

Guzman (Peter Berling) - Aguirre's toy. A symbol of greed and gluttony. Guzman is constantly eating during most of his screen time. He nonchalantly devours hedonistic things while the world around him crumbles.

Everything about El Dorado is just an illusion, and we know from the beginning that Aguirre and his crew are plunging themselves into the abyss of death.

What Herzog achieves in Aguirre, the Wrath of God is immersion. He wants the audience to not just see the film, but feel it in the most intense way possible. The shot of the rapids is my favorite "immersion" scene.

Kinski as Aguirre

The film is a minimalist character study. So if you're looking for There Will Be Blood antics here, you're in the wrong movie. It is just like any other Herzog movies: a character study. I think that's why most of his films have a character's name as the title: Aguirre, the Wrath of GodStroszekNosferatu the VampyreWoyzeckFitzcarraldo, and Cobra Verde.

With his knack for languid yet compelling style of filmmaking, Herzog captures the distasteful fruit of greed, as well as the deplorable aspect of religion (Roman Catholicism to be exact).

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is an hour and thirty-something minutes long. It is dubbed in German but was actually filmed in English. This is the first of the five films Herzog and Kinski made together; the beginning of a turbulent professional relationship.

The film was shot in Peru, prominently showing the Amazon River (Herzog's favorite location). Herzog is very skilled in making the most out of landscapes. Herzog does what Ingmar Bergman does to human visage; he films it with such keen attention.

One scene shows this mountain, in long shot, with people looking like a trail of ants, and then beside the mountain is a thick fog. That particular frame is a testament of Herzog's genius when it comes to filming landscapes. Of course credit also goes to cinematographer Thomas Mauch for executing the shots.

Almost like a documentary in terms of its technical aspect, the film has a lot of quiet and almost static scenes, which actually add a sense of fear and isolation, something which the characters are experiencing. The silence is well-played, just like the sound of the jungle.

Kinski as Kinski, I mean, Aguirre

Klaus Kinski almost had a few lines throughout the film — you almost wouldn't notice him during the first half of the film — yet his charisma is one of the film's best draw. Kinski knows that he is Klaus Kinski, so he does nothing but be Klaus Kinski portraying a character named Don Lope de Aguirre. He knows very well how to manipulate his onscreen presence by mere facial expressions and body language.

Popol Vuh's music sets a "meditation mood" to the film. The opening scene at the foggy mountain is well-tuned to Popol Vuh's haunting music. Then boom! There explodes the cannon. Herzog makes the best out of the silence, which is usually broken by either the eerie jungle sounds or the explosions. It's fascinating how the silence become one of the "threats."

As per Wikipedia, several pages of Herzog's initial manuscript for the film got puked on by one of his football teammates. Herzog disposed the already yucky pages and cannot remember what he wrote on those pages. Herzog later had to write the whole screenplay "in a frenzy."

Just another trivia: Herzog and Kinski reportedly argued about the portrayal of Aguirre; Kinski wanted to portray Aguirre à la Paganini — flashy mania and all — while Herzog wanted Don Lope de Aguirre to be this low-key yet menacing personage. Herzog won the argument. Thank God. Otherwise Aguirre, the Wrath of God would become kitsch-verging-on-preposterous, which is exactly what Kinski's Paganini is.

Rojo as Doña Inéz

Although darkly humorous at times, I got the impression that Herzog wants to portray the illnesses of society: greed, hypocrisy, and passivity; how people become slaves in their own land, as well as the way we just watch the world's destruction instead of doing something to at least halt the destruction.

"Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness."
- Werner Herzog

Trailer for Aguirre, the Wrath of God:

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