Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

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*. Heart of Darkness, again. And well before Coppola (who claimed this film as a “very strong influence”). It’s a universal theme, but one that Herzog, at least in English, has trouble expressing. When asked on the commentary track about what attracts him to people going out into the wilderness and losing themselves he is rather vague: “I think it has to do with us within nature. And civilization, where are we standing, where do we come from, what is the bottom line of our existence, and how do we behave under particular strain and stress, and then you gain insights, much deeper insights, into our very nature.”
*. Perhaps it would have made more sense in German.
*. Speaking of what might have been lost in translation, I find it amusing that the movie was originally shot in English but that this soundtrack went missing. On the German soundtrack the voices are post-synched, and it shows. That’s not even Kinski’s voice you’re hearing. Which makes me wonder why I don’t just watch this movie in a dubbed English version. But I never have.
*. Not that it matters much. This is a movie that works without dialogue. The score is beautiful, and so are the jungle sounds. But aside from that, it might almost be a silent movie. And Kinski gives a great silent film performance, complete with exaggerated gestures and dramatic poses.
*. Indeed the whole movie seems to be on a journey into silence. Ursua retreats into silence after Aguirre’s coup, and throughout the movie death comes so silently it is rarely even noticed.

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*. Shooting on location is difficult, and if reports are accurate shooting this film was hell. But it was worth it. Few other movies give you such a sense of being in the real shit. How Herzog made a film that looks so beautiful under such conditions is beyond me.
*. The jungle wasn’t meant to be just a scenic backdrop but in some way representative of the souls of the men. This seems to be something Herzog really believes in.
*. I first saw this movie as a teenager and vaguely remember being bored out of my mind by it. I appreciate it far more now, indeed my love of it grows with each repeated viewing, But I can also see what initially turned me off. Herzog does like holding a shot for a long time. “Normally a filmmaker won’t hold a shot this long,” he says on the commentary, referring to some early shots of the raging river. In that particular instance his point was to show that nature had an independent life. Independent of our attention, I assume.
*. Kinski seems to be on the same wavelength with the long takes. Does this guy ever blink? As if those bulging eyes weren’t enough! I don’t think he blinks once throughout his entire “wrath of god” speech. Amazing.
*. Where did the Richard III impersonation come from? Herzog suggested the idea of playing Aguirre like he might have a hunchback. The historical Aguirre had a limp, but Kinski’s head is tilted so far over in some scenes he looks like he’s about to fall down. I like his crab-walk though. It gets the idea across that Aguirre is already someone broken by life. It’s hard to imagine him ever being married, much less having such a sweet kid.
*. That said, this is a standout portrayal of evil, one that accurately catches the charisma and persuasiveness of Aguirre’s mania. This in turn explains why men would choose to get behind him as a leader, and then how the group disintegrates as his personality unwinds.
*. In his book The Serial Killer: A Study in the Psychology of Violence, Colin Wilson makes some interesting points about dominant personalities. Apparently during the Korean War the Chinese found that by isolating one dominant prisoner out of twenty the rest of the prisoners would become inert. And when Bernard Shaw asked the explorer Stanley how many members of his expedition could potentially take over if he were to be injured he answered exactly twenty. Wilson then cites the work of Lorenz and Tinbergen as demonstrating that this rule of a dominant five per cent applies to all animal species, and that when groups are under stress the dominant five per cent begin showing signs of criminal, psychopathic behaviour.
*. There appear to be around twenty members of the expedition here. Now look at all the group compositions and see how Herzog arranges them into the leader and the pack.

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*. I’m sorry, but it’s laughable that Inez and Flores should both look so damn good right up to the end. They’re in the jungle and they look like they just came out of a salon.
*. Herzog deliberately goes for stylized posing, figures frozen “as though in a still photo,” or “frozen still lifes”.
*. A deliciously acid portrait of the priest. The church has always sided with power.
*. Why do I get the feeling that Aguirre’s daughter is mentally handicapped in some way? I just do.
*. I love looking at all the faces in the background. There are so many shots arranged this way, highlighting Aguirre’s status as the dominant personality, with the others cast into the background as audience. There they stand, silently (silence again!) observing. Rarely if ever saying anything. Just watching. And fatally, passively, going along with Aguirre’s madness.
*. Herzog: “I’ve never storyboarded anything in my life. I think it’s a disease of Hollywood . . . you lose all spontaneity out of filmmaking.” And again you wonder how he managed to make a movie so composed this way. I mean, there’s hardly a shot here that feels out of place.

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