Aguirre, the Wrath of God  (1972)

Werner Herzog has made two movies that consistently show up on those "Movies You Must See Before You Die" lists: Fitzcarraldo, and Aguirre the Wrath of God. I saw Fitzcarraldo a while ago, and sort of love/hated it, and I have the same feeling towards Aguirre. There are moments of brilliance weaved in with moments of tedium, a compelling story that could have used some heavier editing, a fantastic vision combined with maniacal performances - while I may not have enjoyed it as pure entertainment, both films left an impact on me.

Aguirre is a true-ish story, based on Pizarro's conquest of the Incan Empire and search for El Dorado, the lost City of Gold. As his army gets bogged down in the dense Amazonian jungle, Pizarro sends a smaller team off to find the city, including the power-hungry Don Lope de Aguirre as second-in-command. As the expedition travels further down the river, they endure floods, scarce food, mutiny, hostile natives, and the complete mental breakdown of Aguirre.

I've seen movies where we follow the lead character's descent into madness, and this ranks up with the best. Behind the scenes, actor Klaus Kinski wanted to portray Aguirre as a raving lunatic, while director Herzog wanted something more subtle. According to stories, Herzog would deliberately infuriate Kinski, then wait for the rage to subside from a boil to a simmer before rolling the cameras. There are also stories that Kinski fired a gun into a hut where crew and extras were playing cards, shooting the finger off an extra. He also threatened to leave the production, headed off into the jungle, and only returned when Herzog said he'd shoot Kinski them himself. Herzog and Kinski are both insane, and they're both perfect for this movie.

The thing that really bogged this movie down was everything other than Herzog and Kinski. The rest of the actors are just plain bad. It felt like things were happening without a real script, with actors sort of looking at each other, waiting for their line to come so they could respond. Part of this was because these actors were literally just floating down the Amazon on a hand-built raft; the discomfort could be seen on their faces, and while that sort of method acting can usually be beneficial, it seemed to just wear on them and drag things down. Add in the crazy Kinski, it just felt like everyone else on set was overwhelmed.

If put in the hands of a more experienced director or editor or cast or crew, this could have been a much more polished movie, but really, it would take away the deranged charm. Some things are best left natural.

[Celluloid Hero] gives "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" a 7 out of 10.

 

 

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