AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD, or: The Orson Welles Problem Strikes Again

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Werner Herzog’s third feature is his CITIZEN KANE, his early film that ended up being the one that overshadowed all those that followed, no matter how accomplished. SIGNS OF LIFE and EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL are excellent and very good, respectively, but simply aren’t in the same league as Aguirre. Nothing he made is. Nothing Fassbinder made comes close to it, though several of Wim Wenders’ movies are great in their ways.

Aguirre is part of a group of conquistadors wandering aimlessly down the Amazon, looking for El Dorado. We know up front they’re not going to find it, and they probably suspect this is so. We listen to the Popul Vuh music, one of the most hopeless film scores ever written, and settle back to watch these fools go where they’re not wanted and destroy themselves. Is it about Vietnam? Is it about Nazi Germany? It’s about Herzog, Kinski and their crew living in tents out in the middle of somewhere, getting bitten by bugs, sinking in the mud, and doing something that would be done with green screens today.

This movie is insane. It is APOCALYPSE NOW done without Coppola’s millions. Coppola alludes to it in his own movie, using a helicopter in a tree as a nod to the ship in a tree:

The image in Aguirre is nuttier–what the hell is a ship doing up in a tree? Well, the water levels, or something…look, I don’t know how it got up there, leave me alone. Whereas the helicopter obviously crashed there. The helicopter is one more cool image on Coppola’s Vietnam thrill ride; the ship is a Magritte moment, possibly a hallucination. At this point in the movie, things are looking very grim. Maybe we’re seeing things.

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Is he still looking at me? Christ, I hope not.

The movie would not be all it is without the score. Whenever it comes on we don’t get the relief of some melody, some travelogue footage to music during a montage. The music is the sound of fate telling these people “You know you’re gonna die here, right? OK, just checking.” Florian Fricke used a Mellotron-like keyboard with tape loops, called a ‘choir organ.’ It’s the music I suspect I’ll hear when I’m dying. Shit, that was gruesome.

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The Stones’ “Monkey Man” would’ve broken the mood. But I’d have laughed.

Aguirre is both compelling–you want to keep going, to see where these poor dopes end up–and darkly funny. They’re not going to find what they’re looking for, so you’re not watching it the way you do a traditional ‘adventure’ film, or even a historical adventure like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Most historical films cost a lot to make, so they have to really lay on the pageantry and in turn they have to make it an uplifting story–even Lawrence was not a bummer, even with the hero dying in the first five minutes, because he made his mark, he did what he wanted to do. In the end he was reamed and his attempt to bring peace or whatever the hell he was trying to do didn’t work out, but you left the movie talking about how cool everything looked.

Aguirre is the anti-Lawrence. You don’t look up at the characters, you look down at them, all of them greedy or stupid, so hungry for gold. Kinski’s Aguirre doesn’t pretend he’s doing this for anyone but himself. What kind of adventure hero, seeing their progress will be delayed by the retrieval of corpses on a raft, has the raft blown up? He’s a thoroughly rotten person, and everyone on the trip with him knows it (except his daughter, with whom he’s got a creepy Joe Biden vibe going on).

And Herzog certainly knows it. He wrote the screenplay in a matter of days and his passion for the movie comes through in every sweaty frame. The only movie of his that approaches the scale of Aguirre is FITZCARALDO, but it’s not much of a movie, it’s a filmed engineering feat. It’s wide but it’s thin, and I spent the movie waiting out the dramatic scenes and just looking at this big boat being dragged up a mountain, then going down the mountain, then spinning around in the water. It’s an effort, where Aguirre is like some horrible drug you take and bliss out on, sliding into the nothingness that awaits these fools.