From the BFI, as part of the Werner Herzog collection, we have ‘Aguirre, Wrath Of God’ starring Klaus Kinski as the mad conquistador intent on finding Eldorado, the city of gold. A fictional story that may well be true, its general lack of dialogue is compensated for by the supreme visual extravaganza of the South American rainforest.
Herzog is the architect of atmosphere. The opening scene of the movie is one to be remembered. Descending from the mountains of Peru into the jungle, Gonzalo Pizarro (the brother of the famous Pizarro who conquered Peru) and a force of Spaniard soldiers and Inca slaves are incongruous to the nature of the surroundings. Two Spanish ladies are carried in sedan chairs, their dress more in keeping with the Royal Court than the heat and humidity of the rainforest. Filmed on location on the Orinoco River, to all intents and purposes this is the same scene that would have met the conquistadors back in the mid-16th century and, according to reports, the exertions of the film crew and cast were almost as great as that experienced by the original Spaniards. It was with arrogance and contempt that the conquistadors pushed their way through the jungle but, by the time they had finished, their armour was rusty and many lay dead.
A splinter group of about fifty is sent on a mission down the river to look for supplies and evidence of gold. Though not in command, Aguirre with ruthless efficiency stamps his authority on the rest of the men and, after doing away with the nobleman in charge, becomes a daemonic dictator. On a large raft, the group drift downstream now intent on becoming an empire on their own, rich beyond dreams and lords of a huge domain. Instead of being in tune with the environment, the rainforest and the people, they are at war with it. This is the path that leads to disaster.
They fight amongst themselves and with the natives. Wherever they make land, it’s with the musket and the sword at hand and villages are razed to the ground. Two natives, a man and a woman, visit their raft on a canoe. They are friendly and wish to make contact but after the priest hands them a Bible which they don’t understand, they are ruthlessly slaughtered. The harsh conditions, the disease and the poisonous arrows take their toll but Aguirre doesn’t seem to think anything is wrong. He is insane, a part which Kinski plays to perfection. Even the death of his daughter doesn’t seem to be able to persuade him otherwise. Perhaps the native people thought they had beaten back a conqueror but fate met up with them at a later date because not only did the invaders return, their cruelty and their diseases wiped them out.
This is one of the best of Herzog’s films and it contains a masterful performance by Kinski. Besides creating an atmosphere, a reality of its own, it makes us think about our arrogance in the face of nature. Okay, it’s not Science Fiction, which is one of the reasons why you are reading articles on this website but, think of this? The conquistadors, driven by greed for gold and land in the name of Spain, ravaged, raped and destroyed all before them. How would we behave if, in a distant future, we left the planet and explored other worlds? Maybe we will not go in the name of peaceful exploration but with greed for resources. Whatever the case, an expansion will have an impact on the environment and lives of others. Worse still, what would happen if another species from the universe decided to come to this planet in the same way that the conquistadors took over Central and South America? It’s no use giving the excuse that these people were different from us because essentially they were human beings, some with good intent and others ignorant of action, people like ourselves, albeit in a different situation. Who’s to say we will not be the same in the future?
Now over 40 years old, ‘Aguirre, The Wrath Of God’, has achieved a timeless status. It’s almost as though the 16th century had been transported through time. Whatever your choice of movies, this is one which should be on your list at some time or other because it’s really one of the best moments of cinematograph history. One definitely to recommend!
Incidentally, the Blu-ray comes with a host of other items not least of which is a full-length commentary with Herzog himself. There is also a 77 minute film about the Mayan creation myth, three other short films, ‘The Unprecedented Defence Of The Fortress Deutschkreuz’, ‘Last Words’ and ‘Fata Morgana’, a choice of German and English audio, plenty of pictures, a trailer and a very good booklet with plenty of information.
(pub: British Film Institute. 1 blu-ray disc. 93 minute film with extras. Price: £22.99 (US). Cat:BFIB1169)
cast: Klaus Kinsky, Helena Rojo, Del Negro, Ruy Guerra and Peter Berling
check out website: http://shop.bfi.org.uk/aguirre-wrath-of-god-limited-edition-blu-ray-steelbook.html#.U5104I1OWM8