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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Werner Herzog’s ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Werner Herzog's 'Aguirre, the Wrath of God'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets
singled out for attention. This is the 
Classic of the Week

“Aguirre, the Wrath of God”
Director: Werner Herzog
Criticwire Classic: A

There are plenty of strange stories about German director Werner Herzog, ranging from delightful – his eating his own shoe after Errol Morris finished “Gates of Heaven” – to heroic – pulling Joaquin Phoenix from a crashed car, only to disappear immediately after – to insane – getting shot by an air rifle during during an interview with Mark Kermode, then continuing with the interview and insisting that “it is not a significant bullet.” But one of the first and most memorable is the story of Herzog threatening to shoot actor Klaus Kinski, then himself, when Kinski attempted to leave the set of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” It was the birth of their volatile but fascinating relationship (which resulted in four more remarkable films), likely the first widely-spread Herzog story, and the making of one of Herzog’s signature looks at nature, hubris, and madness.

Kinski stars as the titular conquistador, a follower of Gonzalo Pizarro, who’s selected as the second-in-command for a scouting mission for El Dorado. Slowly, Aguirre’s loathing for orders, for his men, and for nature itself takes over, inspiring mutiny and becoming a new, more tyrannical and terrifying leader. As he promises his men untold riches, he leads them to oblivion and he descends further and further into insanity.

Kinski’s towering, feral performance, with its mad raving and monkey-throwing, so embodies the very nature of hatred and madness that it could easily overshadow a lesser film. But Herzog counteracts Kinski’s increasingly unhinged performance with an ethereal beauty informed by German progressive band Popol Vuh’s haunting, serene score and Thomas Mauch’s lyrical imagery (though it’s hard to screw up photographing jungle this gorgeous). In Herzog’s film, the jungle is a beguiling being, as lovely as it is deadly, something that swallows up men whose moral and spiritual fortitude is eroded by their ambition, if it was ever there at all.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Ben R. Nicholson, CineVue

Herzog has become renowned for his knack of shooting within natural landscapes over his varied career, and he makes fantastic use of that ability on this occasion. His opening shot, which is accompanied by a spine-tingling spiritual chorus, pans down from misty mountains to a troupe of conquistadors picking their way through the enveloping Amazonian undergrowth. The scale of their task – and their surroundings – is made perfectly apparent. Read more.

Edward Copeland, Edward Copeland’s Tangents

One thing I loved about “Aguirre” is how swiftly it moves and, of course, the wonderfully odd title performance by Klaus Kinski. As I watched it, I thought the way he physically moved was remarkable, but I was having a hard time thinking of the correct word to describe it. Once I listened to the commentary track with Herzog, he said what he reminded him of and provided the word for me: Kinski moves as if he’s a crab, jerking with pinched claws as he reels out of control. Read more.

More from the web:

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

The film is not driven by dialogue, anyway, or even by the characters, except for Aguirre, whose personality is created as much by Kinski’s face and body as by words. What Herzog sees in the story, I think, is what he finds in many of his films: Men haunted by a vision of great achievement, who commit the sin of pride by daring to reach for it, and are crushed by an implacable universe. Read more.

J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

As with all Herzog, fiction is based in documentary — and vice versa. (The movie, which was shot in sequence, purports to be drawn from a fake historical journal.) Landscape is paramount; animals lend their behavioral presence. The camera is exceptionally mobile even as the action is shot midstream on wooden rafts. Each bend in the river compels the spectator to consider how this movie was actually made. Every shot suggests some sort of ordeal, even if it is only hanging out in the Amazon. Read more.

David Jenkins, Little White Lies

Kinski projects violence through actions rather than words. He throttles his comrades with his eyes, transmitting sub-sonic hate bulletins via his brusque body language which state that anyone who dares affront his iron will might find themselves on the business end of his infinite ire. Democracy doesn’t stand a chance against Kinski’s laser eye, as seen in the riverside vote scene where Aguirre doesn’t so much intimidate the electorate as psychologically fill their ballot papers in for them. Read more.

Nick Schager, Slant Magazine

If Herzog and Aguirre are kindred spirits, so too are both with Klaus Kinski, the infamously eccentric thespian and favorite of Herzog’s who, in his first of five collaborations with the director, embodies the Spanish explorer with a bestial ferocity that’s breathtaking in its enormity. His head frequently cocked to one side to suggest pre-murderous contemplation, his body swaying back and forth like a drunken predator poised to strike, Kinski is the force-of-nature center of Herzog’s South American-set maelstrom, lurching and careening about the frame with Shakespearean grandeur. With his mesmerizing eyes radiating unchecked insanity, Kinski seems to inhabit Aguirre’s ratty armor-encased body and megalomaniacal soul like a pair of old, familiar sneakers, his presence so naturally in tune with his character’s escalating ego and self-destructiveness that the line separating performer from protagonist becomes hopelessly blurred. Read more.

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