Finally back from grocery shopping at Whole Foods and spending some time with my cousin before he went to work. It's hard to focus on watching a long movie when family is over. After he left, I ate dinner and got settled into the basement with a cozy fire (made with some gimmicky fake log that makes the flames change colors) to watch Werner Herzog's famous film Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972).
I'm a big Herzong fan, but I've honestly only watched a lot of his newer films, so I was excited to finally see this. I cannot believe I missed this film.
The film follows a small expedition of Spanish conquistadors as they search for El Dorado. The party splits up into smaller groups to search, and Aguirre, played by Klaus Kinski, starts to lead a rebellion to become leader of the men. I was so blown away by it! I love the story, the haunting and strange music, the acting, everything.
I was really fascinated with the plot itself. Most adventure films are full of excitement, conquering, bravery, and at the very least, survival and success of some kind. This movie is the opposite - an adventure film with a raving lunatic at its helm, the entire expedition is a failure beyond words, and it isn't very "epic" in any traditional sense, with most of it focusing on a raft drifting down a river for long periods of time. I really was delighted by the sort of anti-adventure film that it was, however. I like anything that seems different and unconventional compared to what I'm used to seeing, and this was, for sure, a film like that. There is something enthralling and depressing about the unavoidable doom. There is nothing that can be done to save the expedition. The failure is inevitable. You just have to sit and watch it unfold.
Kinski's acting here was incredible. Aguirre is convincingly mad, his eyes detached and wild. He is that frightening, stalking, quiet sort of mad. I completely believe in him as this character - there is not a second that I saw anything other than pure lunacy from him. I love that - it's so often that I watch things where I cannot really get into an actors performance, or I keep seeing their other roles. From what I've heard of this film, it was filmed pretty guerrilla-style as well - shot in order, the actors really out there on dingy nasty leaky rafts - so that might be why I find the performances so convincing and engrossing. I always hear quite a lot about how passionate and extreme Herzog is as filmmaker - always pushing boundaries, breaking laws, doing unsafe things, and it seems like these filming techniques, however controversial, always pay off.
There is tons of gossip and information floating around about how Herzog filmed this movie. The wikipedia page for it details all of it really well, so I recommend giving it a read, since I don't want to just rephrase all of it for you here. Ebert mentions some of this, writing about on common legend of this film, that "Herzog held a gun on Kinski to force him to continue acting, although Kinski, in his autobiography, denies this, adding darkly that he had the only gun" (The Great Movies, 20). I read that Kinski shot off the finger of an extra while filming this. It's fascinating and somehow exciting to read about this - as engrossing and haunting as the film itself, in some way. Film sets are generally horrible and mundane places, with much standing around and resetting and re-shooting. I sort of yearn for the manic filmmaking of Herzog, it seems like the sort of film set I might actually not fall asleep on. Incredible films and wacky adventures with Herzog's accent. What could go wrong? Ebert also writes of Herzong, "He does not want to tell a plotted story or record amusing dialog; he wants to lift us up into realms of wonder" (The Great Movies, 21). This is so true. I love that this film took me to some sort of new, insane, place. A new mindset. A new mood.
I feel dramatic saying these things, but when I think to the end scene, of Aguirre on his raft, with his dead crew and tiny monkeys, plotting how they will take over the world, I feel something that I cannot describe. I remember reading somewhere that 'awe' is a very hard to get feeling for humans - we need to go out and see something new, experience something new, and that is actually quite rare for a lot of people. Although awe is not the right word for what I am feeling when I think of this scene, it is the first thing that comes to mind. Herzog gave me something new. I cannot explain what that new emotion is. Awe is part of it, but there is something more, and I feel it strongly. This is by no means the "best" movie I have ever seen, and I have seen movies that have altered my mind and mood far more than this. I guess I haven't had that experience in a long time, so it is really exciting for me again.
Ebert's Great Movie Essay
Werner Herzog reads "Twas the Night Before Christmas"