Aguirre, Wrath of God: the tale of a lunatic, told by madmen

18 Jun

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On Sunday I saw Werner Herzog’s startling, visionary, hallucinatory 1972 film Aguirre, Wrath of God at the BFI Southbank with my 17-year-old son. It was a big moment, as well as a great film, for two reasons.

One, that my son would choose this over the easy thrills of Man of Steel shows how far he’s come in his own cinephile journey (click here for the funny, sweet short film he made in Film Studies). Two, Aguirre was the film that turned me on to European art cinema, when I myself was 17.

The film stands up to time. Slow by modern standards, but, as my son said, still not a second wasted.

Aguirre tells of a doomed expedition of Spanish conquistadors to find the legendary gold city of Eldorado, sailing downriver through the jungle on makeshift rafts at the mercy of hostile Indians, in scenes that are a blatant influence on Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It opens with an astonishing shot of hundreds of soldiers and their South American Indian slaves winding their way down a vertiginous mountain pass. As the fog slowly parts, like the mists of time, it’s clear that the film will be more symbolic as literal.

The second in command, Aguirre, is consumed with dreams of glory. He betrays his commander and leads his men through a combination of sheer will and sudden brutality. “That man is a head taller than me,” he says to his henchman, as he overhears talk of mutiny; “that may change.”

After the henchman takes the hint and decapitates the conspirator with a machete, so suddenly that his severed head completes his final sentence from the ground, Aguirre delivers an inspirational pep talk to the rest of his starving, fever-stricken troops: “Anyone considering desertion will be cut into 198 pieces and trampled on until you can paint the walls with him.”

But it’s not so much what he says and does, as how he is, that inspires fear and awe. Klaus Kinski is a one-off: a diagnosed schizophrenic and insatiable sexual libertine, his fleshy lips are set in a perpetual sneer, and slashed across his face like an engorged sexual organ; his jagged cheekbones provide a constant reminder of the skull beneath the skin; his gigantic eyes are as blue as the sky and as cold as ice.

Watching Aguirre stroke his 15-year-old daughter’s hand, brought along on this lunatic venture because he could not bear to be parted from her, is made especially uncomfortable by the revelation earlier this year that Kinski’s younger daughter Pola was sexually abused by him from the ages of 5 until 19.

Kinski’s mere presence helps elevate the film to the realms of myth. As Aguirre refuses to abandon his dreams despite overwhelming odds, you question what a fine line it is that separates the madman from the visionary, genius from delusion. It’s a question Herzog has returned to again and again in his film-making career, and in a sense, it is the story of every director, and every film. The making of each feature is a triumph of will, a victory of dreams over common sense, an impossible task conducted by a madman with dreams of glory leading a raggle-taggle band of occasionally mutinous followers.

Herzog more than others. The shooting of Aguirre was famously fraught: the perilous raft journey you see on film was real, and experienced by the actors; the fevers they suffered, real too. Herzog and Kinski fell out so badly that – accounts differ wildly – a gun was brought into play. And yet, a decade later, they reunited in the South American jungle to make Fitzcarraldo. This time, their task was to haul a three-storey, 320-ton metal steamship up a mountain – both fictionally, and in reality.

No, they really don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Aguirre, Wrath of God is still playing (till Thursday) in a new restoration at the BFI Southbank, Curzon West End, and after that at selected venues nationwide

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