Today’s topic: looking for meaning. We all do it. We try to understand something that is too incomprehensible. We want to grasp the meaning when something is meaningless. We want to find answers when there are no questions. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) directed by Werner Herzog is precisely about that. It’s a wild, hellish tale of mankind destroying itself; a tale that creates a terrifying yet brutally true depiction of a mutilated world, populated by corrupt individuals and silent gods.
Herzog, at the time an unknown German director with little to no experience, has become the symbol of an adventurist director. Having directed real life epics like Fitzcarraldo, gritty dramas like Rescue Dawn, cop thrillers such as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and numerous documentaries that have paved the way for countless specialists in the field with fantastic works like Grizzly Man, Into the Abyss, Encounters at the End of the World, and Fata Morgana, Herzog has become a film philosopher rather than a film director. Critics and colleagues keep describing him as an ‘intense madman’. Interviewers keep underlining the fact that he always answers with the first thing that pops into his mind, but let’s be honest – the world needs men like Herzog. Not many people involved with the movie business have the guts to talk about things that others choose to ignore. Not many people have the courage to set themselves a challenge so incredibly tough and not walk out of it. That’s Herzog for you and his film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, is an achievement that will speak for ages to come.
The story of a ruthless Spanish conquistador, Don Aguirre, who takes over an expedition in Peru in order to find the legendary El Dorado, the city of gold, is a very modern take on our burning reality. Above all, it’s a brilliant character study of a man blinded by the thirst of power, a man that keeps spinning in circles trying to find his destination – the meaning. But in a place like the jungle, there is no meaning. Or maybe there is, but it’s hidden. It strikes you when you got your back to it. It digs its blade into your chest the moment you least expect it. Right from the opening shot – a long column advances across the mountains, fighting the hostile weather and nature – we get a sense of what it is all about; a Sisyphus struggle, an endless journey into the real heart of darkness. The men who lead the way for the rest of the column are the first ones to go. Herzog doesn’t focus on their probable deaths, but rather on their disappearance. His camera stays steady as a rock while we hear a slave yell out in pain, a soldier suffocate in a deadly trap, an officer get hit by an arrow. We hear what we want to hear, but we see what Herzog wants us to see. It’s a fantastic example of how cinema can manipulate our minds, our senses, forcing us to make our own vision, our own idea. At the beginning, Aguirre stands in the far corner of every frame; the devil watches over and waits. In fact, Aguirre waits until most men tied to the expedition either die of illness or are killed by invisible ‘savages’. I type ‘savages’ because we have to keep in mind, that this whole expedition has as its man goal to spread the word of God among the natives, be it with the help of the Bible or the simple use of a sword. A priest is our main narrator, a man who is as possessed by his own ambitions same as the mad Aguirre. A man who dresses in rags, but aims for riches just as much as the soldier standing next to him.
Herzog with the help of his 35mm camera immerses us into the humid jungle. He lets us observe the faces of the conquistadors, giving us the possibility to judge on our own, make up our own interpretations. “That man is a head taller than me. That may change.” whispers Aguirre into the ear of his devoted servant. The chopped off head lands onto the ground; the lips still moving. The message is clear – there is no place for truth in a world where slaves still exist, where houses are burned, where wars are fought, where innocent people die in the name of the guilty ones. The remaining members of the expedition build a raft that will end up being our main setting. Day by day, the group on the raft becomes smaller, and smaller and smaller. Every now and then we hear an arrow zip by. Herzog evidently haunts us with repetitive hand-held shots of worn out, tired faces, dying animals, bloody weapons. The raft starts to break down, but surprisingly no one cares about it. Hunger is not felt anymore, thirst is only a dark memory, and blindness becomes these men’s religion. “We keep going in circles” says the priest and there is no God listening to him. Maybe he never wished for one to be there. Some men don’t want to be listened to.
Aguirre, being the only one left standing, represents all the things a viewer wants him to represent. He has no boundaries, no agenda, no dreams, no nothing. He only wants to be as big as God really made him. He wants to have power over nature, over his fellow soldiers, over the entire world. He wants the earth to shake when he walks. He wants the birds to drop dead when says so. Will it happen? Is this what this reality of ours has been leading us to? Herzog remains silent.
The meaning is hidden, but someday… someday something will happen. And Aguirre will emerge from the depths of darkness.