Collected Works: Film
Aguirre, the Wrath of God
directed by Werner Herzog
A solitary raft drifts down the Amazon. The foothills of the Andes enclose the mighty river, carving out an imposing, rocky amphitheatre that foreshadows the bleak drama to come. The landscape is blanketed by impenetrable jungle, isolating the craft as it continues on its quest. Its destination: El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. The deeper it strays into the wilderness, the more sense and reason seem to fragment. In this dark corner of the world, disquiet and discomfort reign.
Among the band of conquistadors on board is Don Lope de Aguirre, who inspires mutiny and proclaims autonomy from the kingdom of Spain. With his exaggerated actions and speech, he appears to embody the madness induced by the tropical setting. Yet his words, gestures, and confrontational demeanour hold sway. Aguirre commands his audience even when silent, his arresting expressions capturing and maintaining the attention of viewers and in-film onlookers alike.
The production of Aguirre, the Wrath of God was an arduous one, and not only for the cast and crew. In the reckless shove of a horse into water and the casual toss of a squirrel monkey, we can observe the merciless supremacy of Werner Herzog’s aims. The close camerawork is similarly uncompromising, throwing viewers into the dense, humid Amazonian scenery. The plot is almost incidental, serving ostensibly as a vessel within which malice is incubated.
The restless anxiety that results is magnified by Popol Vuh’s haunting electronic score. The presence of synthesised sound in a sixteenth-century context may jar, but such is the director’s intention. Like Aguirre’s occasional, direct address of the camera, these uncanny touches add to the disorder. Estranged from the story at the surface, the audience comes to be pressed further downstream, pushed ever closer to this realm’s hellish core.
Words by Hugh Maloney