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91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972 
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Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
One of the appealing aspect of classic movies is that the films themselves have a story. Few films have a making-of story as interesting as the making of "Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes".

Plot

It's South America in the 16th century. Conquistadors and their Indio slaves descend the slopes of the Andes in single file, through the clouds into the jungle below in search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado. Soon, their progress is halted by the thick jungle and they decide to send an advance party downriver to scout for food. The scouting party soon cannot turn back. Aguirre, the second-in command, overthrows the leader of the expedition and installs a puppet "Emperor of El Dorado", before overthrowing him as well and taking the leadership of the group. Attacked by unseen Indios from the jungle, the expedition is soon starving and hallucinating. In the end, Aguirre is left standing alone on a raft, strewn with corpses and teeming with hundreds of monkeys, while declaring that he will marry his daughter and found a pure dynasty of rulers of El Dorado.

Origin

Herzog claims that he took the inspiration for "Aguirre" from a paragraph in a children's book about explorers. He mixed up three different expeditions on the Amazon river and largely invented the plot. According to Herzog, much of the script was written on a bus trip by his football team, who got drunk early on and started singing obscene songs "after a few miles", which culminated in the goalkeeper puking all over the script.

Had Herzog known the full story of the historical Don Lope de Aguirre, he might have thought it too outlandish to be made into a film. Aguirre participated in a civil war among the conquistadors and was crippled. He spent three years chasing on foot after a judge, who had sentenced him to a public flogging. Although this judge took to wearing chainmail at all times, Aguirre finally murdered him. Aguirre indeed took part in an ill-fated expedition down the Amazonas in search of El Dorado and overthrew two expedition leaders, but did not perish in the jungle. The survivors made their way out of the jungle, declared open rebellion against the King of Castile, took the Isla Margarita (Venezuela) and established a tyrannic regime there. Aguirre's downfall was an attack on Panama, where he killed his daughter before being captured, hanged and quartered.

Persons involved

For German director Werner Herzog, "Aguirre" marked his international breakthrough. Along with other German filmmakers of the late 60ies and early 70ies, such as Fassbinder ("Ali: Fear etas Soul"), Schlöndorff ("The Tin Drum") and Wenders ("Wings of Desire"), he is often grouped under the label "New German Film". This doesn't mean that there is a coherent filmmaking approach (such as in the Dogme 95 movement); it is just a description of a generation of filmmakers, who would make films with artistic ambition rather than the purely commercial (and generally awful) German films of the 50ies and early 60ies. Herzog is still going strong today, recently focussing on documentaries ("Grizzly Man", "Encounters at the end of the World") and even making his first studio-financed movies ("Rescue Dawn" starring Christian Bale, currently filming a remake of "Bad Lieutenant" with Nicolas Cage).

Principal actor Klaus Kinski is the great madman of German theatre and film acting. His fits of rage, abuse of the audience and generally volatile personality are the stuff of legend. When making "Aguirre", Kinski had just finished a desastrous tour of his stage recitation "Jesus Christ Redeemer" and, according to Herzog, was still very much in character, ofting quoting the bible during filming and close to a nervous breakdown, as he had engaged into heated shouting matches with the audience during that tour. Kinski was not very discriminatory about his work; what interested him was primarily the money (a quarter of Aguirre's budget was Kinski's wage). Consequently, he was primarily a B-movie actor, appearing in Spaghetti westerns etc. (for instance Leone's "For a few Dollars more"). Artistically, the high point of his acting career were the five collaborations with Herzog, of which "Aguirre" is the first one. The relationship between Herzog and Kinski might best be described as a love/hate-relationship, which has been the subject of Herzog's documentary "My best fiend".

Because it contributes so much to the atmosphere of the movie, the haunting ambient electronic soundtrack by German "band" Popol Vuh deserves to be mentioned. This is an early example of ambient electronic music, before this term had been invented, so like contemporaries Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, it is often referred to as a Krautrock/ Prog Rock soundtrack.

Making of Aguirre

While "Aguirre" may not qualify as an adventure film, the filming if "Aguirre" qualifies as an adventure.

The budget for the production was so low, that Herzog appropriated a camera from his filmschool in the name of art in order to make it. Herzog also sold his watch and other personal items, in order to buy food. The hundreds of monkeys for the final scene were double sold, so Herzog rushed to an airport, passed himself off as a veterinarian and took the monkeys "into quarantine".

Most notably, Herzog's method of making films is to capture the "voodoo of the location". In other words, if you want to convincingly show conquistadors starving in a jungle on screen, you have to film actors starving in a jungle. Most of what's on screen is really happening: When you see the rafts going down rapids, they are going down rapids without a safety net. (On his audio commentary, Herzog describes the scene in question as "tricky, but quite safe" because "the rafts were solid and the actors had ropes to hang on to", which contrasts with the actors' facial expressions to quite comical effect.) Mishaps such as a flooding of an area, which destroyed the rafts, was incorporated into the screenplay on the spot.

Another special aspect is Klaus Kinski. Legend has it, that Herzog forced him to act at gunpoint, although Herzog clarifies that, when Kinski threatened to leave the production, he stated "If you leave, I will shoot you with this gun before you reach the bend of the river, then I'll shoot myself". In fact, it was Kinski who did some shooting - angered by the noise of card-playing extras, he shot into a tent with his rifle, injuring one of the extras.

Herzog states that Kinski wanted to perform in a raving lunatic mode, whereas Herzog desired a "quiet, more dangerous performance". So Herzog provoked Kinski into rages, which lasted for hours and thoroughly exhausted Kinski, before filming some scenes. Kinski's intensity doesn't end there - in a scene where he is beating fellow conquistadors with his sword, he split the helmet of a co-actor and injured him quite severely. Also, some of the extras refused to work with Kinski out of fear (and some Indios allegedly offered to kill Kinski, if Herzog so desired).

Reception

"Aguirre" was a flop on its original release in Germany - the critics hated it and audiences stayed away. It can't have helped that the film was shown on TV on the same day it opened in the cinemas, because a TV station was largely responsible for the financing. However, "Aguirre" was picked up by a small French distributor, who showed in in a Paris cinema for two years in front of sell-out audiences. When "Aguirre" was released in the U.S. in 1977, it was a critical success.

Herzog would make two more films starring Kinski and set in a jungle, which might be called his "madman in the jungle" trilogy: The great "Fitzcarraldo" and the not-quite-so-great "Cobra Verde". Of course, they share some similarities and the making of "Fitzcarraldo" (subject of the documentary "Burden of Dreams") may be even more interesting than the making of "Aguirre". Coppola has acknowledged, that "Apocalypse Now" was inspired by "Aguirre". Apart from that, "Aguirre" has pretty much remained a one of a kind film.

On his audio commentary, Herzog mentions that critics have interpreted "Aguirre" as a metaphor for Hitler or the Vietnam War. However, he was never interested in making a metaphorical film or to relate to contemporary issues.

Is it worth watching today?

While never boring, the film moves at a deliberate pace. For some, "Aguirre" might be a challenging viewing experience. Herzog also delibaretly violates some rules of cinema. For those who are unsure whether they might like "Aguirre", I would recommend to watch the not dissimilar but more accessible "Fitzcarraldo" first.

Otherwise, "Aguirre" is highly recommended. It contains several unforgettable scenes. The visuals alone are worth the investment. Herzog's filming approach, which necessitates the use of a hand-held camera most of the time, also conveys a good sense of "being there" - watching "Aguirre" resembles watching a documentary made about a real expedition. Finally, Kinski's portrayal of Aguirre's descent into madness is one of the great unhinged performances of cinema history. Kinski really has a demonic presence like no other.

For me, this is a 10/10 film. There are flaws, but they are irrelevant in the light of this epic achievement.


Mon Jul 27, 2009 5:49 am
Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
Wow, I said we needed comments and you delivered big time. Thanks so much. This is awesome

The first time I saw Aguirre Wrath of God I was not ready and rated it poorly. In 2007 i watched it again and was stunned. The ending shot maybe one of the true great of any movie.

Werner Herzog is probably now my favorite living director. I cannot wait to see each new movie that he produces and love his constant desire to push boundaries and see man's interaction with nature.

I have a deep affection for him as a film maker and what he has been through. Does anyone have a more interesting voice? I'd encourage anyone to search out the documentary "Werner Herzog eats His Shoe". I have been to the location, eaten at Chez Panisse and had the strange privilege to work with Errol Morris. it's a must see short!

Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, My Best Friend, Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World.... all greta and thought provoking movies

Next year I will revisit Aguirre
Thanks
Rob


Mon Jul 27, 2009 1:26 pm
Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
If there' s a candidate for "admired but not loved" to me, it's Aguirre. I fully admit I prefer my movies to be less surreal and more grounded in reality. Thus, certain scenes, such as the decapitation scene, turned me off on a very shallow level. However, I understand the admiration the film receives and I did embrace many of its aspects, the cinematography and performance of Klaus Kinski in particular.

I think what interested me more about the movie was its making and Herzog's ability to channel Kinski's literal madness into a powerhouse role. If I made a list of people I wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley, Kinski would be fairly high on it. :)


Mon Jul 27, 2009 1:39 pm
Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
"Haunting" is used to describe just about everything these days, but I can't think of a better word for this one. Some of Herzog's shots really boggle the mind. The opening and closing shot in particular are easily among the best ones ever recorded on film.

This would be a 10/10 for me, except for one thing which really, really bothered me. I don't know about everyone else, but I heard a lot about this movie going in. What I never heard though, is that the movie is dubbed. As soon as the dialogue started I was put off. It's clear that the actor's mouths don't match what they are saying. Thankfully, there is a lot of voice over narration and quite a few instances where a character speaks but we don't see their face. Especially poor is the dubbing for Klaus Kinski. I read that he wanted more money to do the dubbing so they got someone else. It shows. I'm not saying this because I read about it after the fact. During the entire picture Aguirre's voice troubled me. If it turned out that Kinski had done the dubbing I'd still be sorely disappointed.

That is my only complaint though. I'm a big fan of Malick's The New World which seems to have been a lot by this one. I could've stared at Kinski and Herzog's pictures for another 90 minutes without problems.

A 9/10 from me.

Also, I wanted to second Rob's thanks to Oli. That's one heck of a write up for the film. Good job.


Sat Apr 17, 2010 12:52 pm
Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
ed_metal_head wrote:
"Haunting" is used to describe just about everything these days, but I can't think of a better word for this one. Some of Herzog's shots really boggle the mind. The opening and closing shot in particular are easily among the best ones ever recorded on film.

This would be a 10/10 for me, except for one thing which really, really bothered me. I don't know about everyone else, but I heard a lot about this movie going in. What I never heard though, is that the movie is dubbed. As soon as the dialogue started I was put off. It's clear that the actor's mouths don't match what they are saying. Thankfully, there is a lot of voice over narration and quite a few instances where a character speaks but we don't see their face. Especially poor is the dubbing for Klaus Kinski. I read that he wanted more money to do the dubbing so they got someone else. It shows. I'm not saying this because I read about it after the fact. During the entire picture Aguirre's voice troubled me. If it turned out that Kinski had done the dubbing I'd still be sorely disappointed.

That is my only complaint though. I'm a big fan of Malick's The New World which seems to have been a lot by this one. I could've stared at Kinski and Herzog's pictures for another 90 minutes without problems.

A 9/10 from me.

Also, I wanted to second Rob's thanks to Oli. That's one heck of a write up for the film. Good job.


Thanks, ed, although I guess I went a bit overboard here.

I've recently read up a bit on Kinski. Turns out that he rarely dubbed his own voice, because he hated the work and people hated working with him. I never really noticed this, because Kinski's voice was (apparently) usually dubbed by the same voice actor in different films, so Kinski's voice in "A few dollars more" is the same as in "Aguirre". This is common practice in Germany for international stars, by the way, i.e. there's a German voice for Robert de Niro etc. Kinski dubbed himself in Fitzcarraldo, though.


Mon Apr 19, 2010 11:41 am
Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
Unke wrote:
Thanks, ed, although I guess I went a bit overboard here.

I've recently read up a bit on Kinski. Turns out that he rarely dubbed his own voice, because he hated the work and people hated working with him. I never really noticed this, because Kinski's voice was (apparently) usually dubbed by the same voice actor in different films, so Kinski's voice in "A few dollars more" is the same as in "Aguirre". This is common practice in Germany for international stars, by the way, i.e. there's a German voice for Robert de Niro etc. Kinski dubbed himself in Fitzcarraldo, though.


That wasn't overboard at all. I'm troubled by Kinski being "dubbed by the same voice actor in different films". I guess this means a lot of Herzog's earlier films are dubbed? That's a little disappointing. I know getting good live sound would have been nearly impossible but it's still offputting when the lips don't match the dialogue. It worked much less for me in Aguirre than it did in something like Suspiria.


Mon Apr 19, 2010 3:36 pm
Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
“Aguirre: The Wrath of God” (1972)*

Not sure what I can add to Unke post...

We’re familiar with the discoveries of Columbus; perhaps less so, the Mid/South American conquests of Pizzaro and Cortes. “Aguirre” is a historical fiction account of a voyage of exploration and discovery that goes horribly wrong. The introduction informs us that only the journal of the missionary survived this expedition. The mutinous Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) leads a group through the jungles of South America, encountering a land as hostile as her cannibalistic natives, on a search for the fabled “El Dorado”. Beautifully filmed, the landscape is a main character in this powerful tale of conquest without conquest. Klaus Kinski is superb.


Awf Hand gives four out of four stars and comments: This is one of those rare movies that has no feel of early 1970’s filmmaking. It looks just as good as the modern “Apocalypto” and will remain even more timeless in it’s beauty and style.

*Time Magazine top 100 films of all time.


Mon Oct 04, 2010 8:41 pm
Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
Awf Hand wrote:
“Aguirre: The Wrath of God” (1972)*

Not sure what I can add to Unke post...

We’re familiar with the discoveries of Columbus; perhaps less so, the Mid/South American conquests of Pizzaro and Cortes. “Aguirre” is a historical fiction account of a voyage of exploration and discovery that goes horribly wrong. The introduction informs us that only the journal of the missionary survived this expedition. The mutinous Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) leads a group through the jungles of South America, encountering a land as hostile as her cannibalistic natives, on a search for the fabled “El Dorado”. Beautifully filmed, the landscape is a main character in this powerful tale of conquest without conquest. Klaus Kinski is superb.


Awf Hand gives four out of four stars and comments: This is one of those rare movies that has no feel of early 1970’s filmmaking. It looks just as good as the modern “Apocalypto” and will remain even more timeless in it’s beauty and style.

*Time Magazine top 100 films of all time.


Awfy, I know you're going through classics but check out Valhalla Rising (2009) when you have some time. There are quite a few similarities to Aguirre (it's a little slower though) and I think if you love the one then you'd love the other. Rob might disagree though.


Tue Oct 05, 2010 2:07 pm
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Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
I just saw Aguirre not too long ago. I think it's something that every serious film buff should see...but I can't say that I'd want to ever watch it again. It is unrelenting, grim, deliberate, and challenging. Kinski is phenomenal, and the rest of the cast is quite good, too. I can't say that I enjoyed it though...I suppose that my review is somewhat similar to James' take on Buried.

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Tue Oct 05, 2010 4:17 pm
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Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
I enjoyed every minute of Aguirre. Herzog takes you into the jungle--and I mean really into the jungle--better than any director has aside from maybe Coppola in Apocalypse Now, and it's hard to believe that that film wasn't influenced by this one.

This is a profoundly great film I beleive, and one that I will fight to the death for. That amazing final shot...the woman calmly marching into the jungle to her death...the surreal imagery...the music--THE MUSIC!--the lead performance by Kinski...oh what a film

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Tue Oct 05, 2010 4:26 pm
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Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
Robert Holloway wrote:
Wow, I said we needed comments and you delivered big time. Thanks so much. This is awesome

Werner Herzog is probably now my favorite living director. I cannot wait to see each new movie that he produces and love his constant desire to push boundaries and see man's interaction with nature. Rob


Thanks a lot to both of you. I am glad to know that you both respect Herzog's works. I can't wait to see his next film. He doesn't make them fast enough for me. He is awesome.


Tue Feb 15, 2011 4:39 pm
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Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
The most nagging question we encounter in Aguirre, the Wrath of God is whether or not Don Lope de Aguirre, a Spanish knight leading a battalion of soldiers into the Peruvian jungles to find the lost city of El Dorado, makes for a plausible character. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is mad, because A) he is played by Klaus Kinski, the infamously mad actor who at the time of filming believed that he was Christ reborn, and B) he mutters lines like, “We will stage history, the same way as other men stage plays,” and means them. Frankly, it’s impossible to take Aguirre seriously. He fails as both a protagonist and a human being. As he moves about the Peruvian locals, barking orders to his soldiers and weaving together promises of fame, wealth, and land, we see a caricature—a crooked, monstrous creature who we are incapable of empathizing with on any human level, save his only three recognizable traits: Greed, violence, and madness.

Yet the ultimate, terrifying revelation of Aguirre, the Wrath of God is that greed, violence, and madness are enough for us to know this man and to connect with his vision. We cannot look at him and see a plausible character—we cannot penetrate into his psyche to learn what would fuel a man to become such a black heart of darkness. Director/writer Werner Herzog requires us to do neither: Aguirre’s only three discernable characteristics, greed, violence, and madness, are enough for us to never doubt his plausibility and to compel us to take his journey deeper and deeper down the Amazon with him. Common sense tells us that no character could be this un-complex and so dedicated to evil without coming across as simplistic as, say, a James Bond villain. Yet Aguirre’s greed is so strong that it is infectious, both to us and his crew; his violence is so assured that he resonates with total, unnerving authority, to the point that even we the distant spectators cower before him in fear. We cannot question him: He is the sum total of every despicable trait that could possible exist in a human being, yet we know this man. He is the darkest part of us that none of us will ever admit to having. He is not the devil on our shoulder; he is the chaotic distortion within our souls.

Aguirre’s madness, the third part of his character, comes in the form of the Peruvian jungle, which has a seemingly endless hostility that equals his own. It follows the same journey that Aguirre takes—quiet at first, unknown, attractively mysterious. As the film progresses, the jungle grows more and more hostile, frantic, frenzied. This wilderness, we learn from a local Indian, goes on forever: “God, in His anger, never finished this place,” he cautions Aguirre, who does not heed the warning. God, in His anger, didn’t finish Aguirre either; perhaps he is drawn to El Dorado because he needs to know that there is something at the end of this world, some place where absolution is found and God’s work is finished. Perhaps this obsession to complete ourselves is what drives us all to greed and, when we can’t find El Dorado, violence. And the violence doesn’t beget the madness, which was always present deep within us: It simply unlocks it. And as we approach the threshold of God’s unfinished creation, the door containing that madness bursts open and frees our rage.

Opening narration informs us that El Dorado is and always has been a ploy invented by the Indians to drive Europeans—who the Indians now know are clearly not gods—deeper and deeper into the wilderness. Knowing the white man’s lust for gold, the creation of a lost city of gold becomes a brilliant strategy. It is an impenetrable myth that is always around the next corner, always farther down the river. Aguirre and his men rebel from the Spanish government by refusing to turn back from their quest when ordered, because El Dorado’s fabled nature—hills of gold and jewels for the taking—is enough to push them forward. Certainly as the film progresses and becomes more hostile and chaotic, Aguirre and his men come to an understanding that they may never find this lost city, but this revelation only further fuels their thirst for greed: “If El Dorado doesn’t exist, we’ll take over every village and tree,” Aguirre rasps, and we’re not sure if his men follow him out of fear and desperation, or if they really believe him. The answer probably doesn’t matter—by the time their grand delusions begin to crumble, they have descended so far into Hell that they cannot turn back. Their greed and madness plunge them deeper into their fate, every step farther and farther away from home.

The progression into Hell is essential here, and we are incapable of ignoring it: Aguirre, the Wrath of God is one of the bleakest films ever made about the dark, inexplicable madness found within the human soul. Such darkness, Herzog reveals, will only inevitably lead to Hell on Earth. Aguirre was made in the 1970s, probably the only decade in cinematic history when such a film could have been made. It was an era that ran rampant with the residue of a controversial, bloody war, uncontrollable drug abuse, frantic consumerism, government scandals, and a general distrust of world leaders—a time when it was easy to believe that Earth was turning into a Hell ruled by greed, violence, and madness.

In such a moment, we could at least count on our great artists to weave logic and reason into the nonsensical madness. Countless filmmakers worked to create time capsules of this era, to record and perhaps to warn future generations. Of such films, there are five that stand out as undisputed, visionary masterpieces: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the uncompromising look at a lonely, psychotic man living in the streets of a drug and crime-riddled New York City; George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, about four survivors who escape from a global apocalypse by locking themselves into a shopping mall and basking in its resources; Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, about dysfunction and selfishness trapping a family helplessly within the confounds of their claustrophobic house; Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a philosophical retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set in Vietnam; and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, which took the ideas of these previous films and stripped them down into their most basic, troubling point: The human race is its own worst enemy, and we are the instigators of our own misfortunes. We can blame God, or even the Devil, but the truth of the matter is that the Devil is us, and God is seemingly silent (it is curious to note that the narrator of Aguirre is a cowardly priest who admits that the church will always side with the powerful in order to stay alive). Watch these films together, and save Aguirre for last—Herzog’s vision not only parallels the other filmmakers’ observations, but he completes them.

This was the first of five collaborations between Herzog and Klaus Kinski, and it is perhaps the best demonstration of Herzog’s masterful control over his craft. Like Ingmar Bergman and Sergio Leone, Herzog understands the canvas of the human face, and edits his film as a combination of vast, desolate jungle images and close-ups of Kinski, more twisted and contorted the deeper he descends into the Amazon. Herzog also makes use of the silent hostility of nature, often by simply circling Aguirre and his crew on their raft as it floats hopelessly down the river. They are engulfed by chaos, and we never doubt that Aguirre is mad for believing that he has control over these elements. At least the opening and closing shots are some of the most haunting in all of cinema: A long line of Spanish knights, Peruvian slaves, and monks, all far away and faceless, emerging from the mist and descending a mountain, and a long, quiet shot of Aguirre as the last living man on his raft, everyone else succumb to disease. Little monkeys dance around the corpses almost mockingly.

Troubles on the set are now stuff of legend (though somewhat overpowered by the infamy surrounding Fitzcarraldo)—stories range from Herzog directing Kinski at gunpoint (“I had the gun,” Kinski insists in his autobiography) to Herzog shooting the entire film on a 35mm camera stolen from his film school (that one is true, Herzog claims). Yet somehow these stories only heighten the delirium that Aguirre achieves instead of consuming it. By the time the clear, linear filmmaking of the first and second acts are replaced by the mystifying, trance-like images of the third (the two most haunting: A prisoner being hung on a vine, and a ship appearing on the top of a tree), it is easy to believe that Herzog, Kinski, and the crew had all gone mad—certainly all of the characters and the jungle had.


Sun May 08, 2011 4:41 pm
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Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
(con't)

But the truth is, difficult filming conditions and a Christ complex notwithstanding, this is probably the most controlled of all of Kinski’s performances. He wasn’t afraid to ham it up (appropriately so) in Fitzcarraldo and Woyzeck, he utterly lost himself in the character of Nosferatu, and by the time he acted in the underrated Cobra Verde, he seemed nearly out of control. But as Aguirre, he subtly, thoughtfully channels his own personal rage and hostility into Herzog’s camera to deliver one of cinema’s greatest performances. At the beginning of this article, I wrote that Aguirre is capable saying the most ridiculous lines of greed and glory and still come across as both plausible and terrifying. This is more difficult to do than it might sound; Aguirre is a character like Adolph Hitler or Jim Jones, who we wouldn’t believe stories about if they hadn’t really existed. Aguirre, of course, didn’t exist, but Kinski’s wide, passionate eyes and twisted, seemingly crippled body convinces us that he could have, and in turn makes historical villains of great evil like Hitler and Jones more feasible in our minds.

It is difficult to watch the control of Kinski’s knight here, in his first film with Herzog, and the riotous rage of his slave trader in Cobra Verde, their last film together, and see the same actor. How much of each was really a performance is difficult to ascertain; Herzog seems to believe that Kinski simply grew madder over time, and the director felt a compulsion to film the actor’s descent. As a result, watching all five Herzog/Kinski films together paints a picture of Kinski’s descent into the madness and violence of hell that closely parallels the journey that Aguirre takes. Kinski continued to return to Herzgo because he claimed it was “his destiny;” I suspect the truth of the matter is that Kinski felt the safest and most contained behind Herzog’s camera, able to emit his fury into a character for a director who knew how to channel the most disturbed aspects of his nature.

Comparisons to Herzog’s other jungle epics Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde are also inevitable, and revealing. Aguirre is the best of the three films, and is the springboard that Herzog used to jump into his other two great tales of madness. Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde are certainly more personal works: Fitzcarraldo is an allegory for Herzog’s own visionary, self-induced trials with nature, and Verde is Herzog’s examination of Kinski’s madness at its peak. If those films were respectively about the director and actors personal obsessions, Aguirre is about the root of obsession in general. We all have an El Dorado that we wish to find and conquer, and we are all capable of falling victim to insanity in our quest to conquer it. Aguirre represents the madness in us all, including the personal madness revealed in Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde for Herzog and Kinski. We accept Aguirre’s ramblings of fame and fortune, outlandish though they are, because they are our ramblings. We embrace his Hell because we are all in Hell. We're beginning to see what Kurtz meant when he looked beyond our world into the next and uttered, "The horror, the horror," and Herzog forces us to wonder if these words really do our nature justice at all.


Sun May 08, 2011 4:42 pm
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Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
Human Rain

It's late in the UK and your epic post deserves better than passing comment - thanks

I'll be back
Rob


Sun May 08, 2011 7:44 pm
Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
That was a fine read, Human Rain. Was this perhaps for a paper you wrote?

This might not have been your intention, but you've made me very interested in seeing Cobra Verde.


Mon May 09, 2011 12:17 pm
Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
I'll echo Ed's comments. Thanks Human Rain, this was a fine read.

Herzog remains one of the most interesting directors working today and I agree that Fitzcarraldo is an easier entre into his work, though Aguirre is the more compelling and memorable film.

Have you seen the documentary "My best Friend Klaus Kinski"?

Again, huge thanks!
Rob

PS - Please write more about other films!


Mon May 09, 2011 1:06 pm
Assistant Second Unit Director

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Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
I was the film critic for the University of Alaska Southeast's Humanities Department for a number of years. I've since moved on, but Aguirre is one of my favorite films and I was happy to post my old essay for discussion.

Cobra Verde is one of Herzog's overlooked masterpieces. I'd be happy to post my review of that film as well in this thread, since it is a sequel of sorts to Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo--at least in Herzog's mind. Here it is below:

Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde opens with images of a hot, barren desert, and then we are immediately thrust into a close up of Klaus Kinski’s face, which is pained, contorted, and undeniably insane. The implication is clear: Kinski is the most barren desert of all, and if Fitzcarraldo was a film about Herzog’s own mad obsessions, then this will be a film totally, completely about Kinski’s enraged soul.

No director worked with Kinski more than Herzog; indeed, no director had the nerve or the patience. Kinski was undeniably a madman, given to fits of violent anger and temper tantrums that tested the tolerance of even the most prolific directors like David Lean and Sergio Leone. He was as delusional as he was egotistical—during the making of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, he believed himself to be both Jesus Christ and Paganini, all the while throwing temper tantrums when Herzog dared to point the camera at anything but the actor’s face. Kinski and Herzog admittedly hated one another on the sets of their films, yet something continuously drew them back to one another, for film after film. Why Herzog put himself through the ordeal of Kinski is a question that will probably never be fully answered (Herzog himself admits that he has no answers in his documentary about Kinski, My Best Fiend), but Cobra Verde perhaps provides more clues than any other film that they made together. This is because more than any of their other collaborations, Herzog allows Kinski to create a character here that is the living embodiment of his personal rage.

Cobra Verde is a difficult film to review, because it is simultaneously one of Herzog’s most deeply flawed pictures and one of his best. Its greatness is completely determined by the point of view in which you watch it. Herzog is clearly trying to make some sort of philosophical statement about the evils of slavery, but the story is so jumbled and thin that such themes are lost and confusing. Besides that, I’m not sure what kind of statement you can make about slavery, except that it is, indeed, evil. Herzog also takes a stab at the politics of slavery, from the points of view of both buyer and seller. Featured, therefore, is a full cast of characters, but they are all curiously flat: They move about with little depth or diversity, and I began to lose track of which character was allied with whom, or why. The overall point seems to be that those who deal in the business of slavery have essentially enslaved themselves, but isn’t that obvious?

Yet at the heart of this film is Klaus Kinski as the legendary bandit, Cobra Verde. In Herzog’s best films, fact and fiction have always been interchangeable, such as casting the genuine schizophrenic Bruno S. as a mentally disturbed person in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, or the use of Peruvian locals to literally pull a steamship over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo. Here, it is difficult to tell where Cobra Verde ends and Klaus Kinski begins, and I’m not even sure if such a distinction is relevant. As I describe the character, I might as well be describing Kinksi: A restless madman prone to murderous anger, who literally travels to all four corners of the earth in search of something to calm his spirits. He hates his occupation, but he is brilliant at it. He walks with a cocky strut as people flee from him, his very presence soliciting fear. His body is wrapped in a well-worn blanket, as if it represents the sorrow and agony that covers him. His hair is wild, long, and unkempt, like that of a wounded lion’s. He fathers over sixty children in the film, yet he neither knows any of them nor desires to—to him, sex is simply an unsuccessful attempt at forgetting his pain, if only for a moment. He doesn’t wear shoes because he "doesn’t trust them.” He walks alone, because he dislikes both horses and people. He stands waist-deep in the Brazilian sea, as he stares longingly into the horizon and mutters, “I long to go forward here to another world.”

“Another world” turns out to be Africa, where, in perfect Joseph Conrad fashion, Cobra Verde finds himself first a slave trader, and then the captive of a renowned and powerful chief who decides he doesn’t do business with white men. Cobra Verde escapes and later becomes the leader of an army of hundreds of Amazon warriors, and then the second-in-command of an entire African kingdom. Yet even in these epic circumstances, his restlessness cannot be abided. Boredom becomes his worst enemy. “Africa is disappointing,” he laments in his journal. “The heat is unbearable, but my heart only grows colder.” As his kingdom collapses and Europe puts a price on his head, Cobra Verde hisses happily, “At last, something is happening!”

The only time in which his restlessness is truly abated is in his bursts of violence and rage. He kills quickly and efficiently, but the anger that surrounds these killings is slow to boil and even slower to dissolve. In one instance, he leads the Amazons in a siege to assassinate a village chieftain, only to find that the chieftain has decided to commit suicide. Cobra Verde explodes into a screaming fit, seemingly because he didn’t have the pleasure of killing the chief himself. Before this showdown, as he trains the Amazons to kill effectively, his eyes are wild with fury and passion, and we realize that these times of fury are the only moments in which Cobra Verde is truly alive.

In this film, Herzog creates the most utterly fascinating character of all his movies, and certainly his most psychologically complex protagonist. That Cobra Verde’s story is inspired by a real-life myth only fuels the legends surrounding Kinksi’s own troubled lifestyle of sexual temptation, rage, and violence. Cobra Verde is clearly the personification of Kinski himself, who was prone to similar fits of anger and restless wandering throughout his very unhappy life.

Sans the jumbled slavery themes, Herzog’s primary thesis seems to be that the restlessness found in both Cobra Verde and Kinski cannot be contained by anything except rage. Cobra Verde does not realize that he exists simply for this rage (and neither did Kinski), but we do not doubt that this is the case. No one can say what fuels this restlessness, and Herzog does not try to answer this question. But it does exist, and at best, it can only be temporarily restricted through aggression, but never stopped altogether. The character of Cobra Verde provides an insightful clue as to why Kinski returned again and again to Herzog’s films—the director somehow managed to capture his rage in a way that made him feel the most uninhibited. Why Herzog continually cast Kinski is a trickier question, except that perhaps he found the actor as fascinating as we find Cobra Verde.

For the picture’s shortcomings, Herzog insists that his films are supposed to reveal the contradictory human nature in all of us, and on this level, Cobra Verde achieves greatness. His bandit lives on the same literary plain as those restless, vengeful literary icons like Joseph Conrad’s (and, for that matter, Coppola’s) Kurtz, Charles Dicken’s Mrs. Havisham, Martin Scorsese’s Travis Bickle, William Shakespeare’s Iago, and Frank Miller’s Batman—characters driven to anger and sadness for seemingly no rhyme or reason, but who are nevertheless cursed to live lives of despair and depravity. There is a thin line between greatness and evil, Herzog argues, and they are created out of the same wandering restlessness. “Slavery is an element of the human heart,” the bandit insists, and we know that, yes, it is at least an element of his heart.

Herzog also claims that his films are meant to inspire us with original, imaginative images. Even as the narrative of Cobra Verde falls apart, it cannot be said that Herzog doesn’t fulfill his primary goal of giving us haunting pictures to look at. We are shown mesmerizing shots of men covered in mud and moving about as if on a chain gang; we see a skin-crawling carpet made literally out of human skulls; an epic shot of a beautiful slave dance involving white flags; the aforementioned army of Amazon warriors being led by the shoeless bandit into a raging battle; Kinski sitting alone in a gigantic, rundown castle, which serves as a vacuum disguised as great power. These images are, in a word, unforgettable—had the director provided no narration at all and simply contained these moments that Herzog pauses to give us, this would alone merit a four-star rating and allow the film to be ranked among the director’s best works.


Mon May 09, 2011 6:15 pm
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Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
con't.

The most unforgettable of all the film’s images are the closing shots of Kinski’s failing battle to move a boat into the water and thus escape from his African prison. The waves crash all around him, and no matter how hard he pulls, the boat will not budge. As a crippled African slave looks on curiously, Cobra Verde finally falls into the water, in despair, frustration, and utter defeat. He cannot win, no matter how hard he pushes. His destiny, he realizes at last, is to wander aimlessly and to eventually fail.

Not long after starring in Cobra Verde, Kinski died of a sudden heart attack. Today, Herzog describes the actor’s life as “a comet that finally burnt out.” Herzog seemed to know that this would be Kinski’s fate, and so the final images of his film ring like a chilling prophecy that could only be given by the man who knew Kinski best. As we watch these final moments of Cobra Verde on the beach, we realize how appropriate it is that Herzog never made another film with Kinski. Herzog insists that this decision was made because Kinski had “become uncontrollable.” I prefer to think that after finally using this film to peer into the mystery of Kinski’s soul, there was no more reason to continue the collaboration: The director had looked as far into the workings of his greatest arch nemesis and ally as he possibly could, and he dared to ask what made the actor tick. After tackling some of the earth’s greatest jungles and deserts, here was the greatest wilderness of all.


Mon May 09, 2011 6:16 pm
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Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
Robert Holloway wrote:
PS - Please write more about other films!


DONE! Reviews are now scattered all over this forum. Primarily in the "Great Movies" page, though I've thrown in a few more elsewhere. I appreciate the interest, and I hope it sparks some good discussion and inspires people to watch some great movies that they haven't seen before.


Mon May 09, 2011 10:55 pm
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Post Re: 91 Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972
Human Rain wrote:
Robert Holloway wrote:
PS - Please write more about other films!


DONE! Reviews are now scattered all over this forum. Primarily in the "Great Movies" page, though I've thrown in a few more elsewhere. I appreciate the interest, and I hope it sparks some good discussion and inspires people to watch some great movies that they haven't seen before.



Human Rain

I have just spent 15 minutes deleting spam and noticed your Shining review. I'll read this and the Shining tonight. Again, many thanks

Rob


Tue May 10, 2011 4:34 am
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