Werner Herzog is fond of stories about obsessive characters and their struggles with the wonders and dangers of the natural world such as Grizzly Man (2005). It’s a familiar theme that also runs through many of his early films like Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). These would make wonderful Earth Day films where we are reminded not only of how we are wreaking havoc with the environment, but where nature actually fights back.
Made 40 years ago, Aguirre, Wrath of God is one of my all-time favorite films that made a deep impression on me when I first saw it in the early 1980s. This German movie was released in Germany at the very end of December of 1972 but did not arrive in the US until 1977, and I did not see it until much later at Toronto’s now defunct second run theatres around 1984. It is about an expedition of Spanish explorers striking out into unknown territory and discovering their limitations while dealing with their darker natures.
This unforgettable Heart of Darkness story was entirely filmed in the thick jungles of Peruvian rainforest and the Amazon River, and is considered a masterpiece that was ahead of its time in terms of its documentary style depiction and level of realism. The opening shots in the mist shrouded Andes Mountains are some of the most striking images ever filmed and it was all done with the cast and crew practically living in the same conditions depicted in the film. The jungle soon becomes an ominous presence, like a vengeful character waiting for the opportunity to strike.
Its images and music are so haunting and hypnotic that you absolutely believe you are witnessing one of the first Spanish expeditions into the new world. It’s a cinematic classic and one of Werner Herzog’s best films, which made his reputation around the world as an uncompromising director who will go to any length to make his films as authentic as possible. The music is so eerie that it immediately gives the sense of a fatalistic downward spiral into a whirlpool of fatigue, fear and paranoia from which there is no escape.
Based loosely on historical events, the expedition of Spanish conquistadors looking for the legendary city of El Dorado get so lost and demoralized in the jungles of Peru, that they eventually turn on each other, abandoning all civilized behavior and become insane as the jungle slowly closes in on them and Indian spears kill them off one by one.
The movie gives you an overwhelming feeling of isolation and people completely cut off from the civilized world. Similar in theme to Lord of the Flies (1963), we see how soldiers and disciplined men morally deteriorate in the absence of civilized society. Klaus Kinski is absolutely mesmerizing in the role of Lope de Aguirre, known in history as a mad man driven by greed for fame and gold. Like an addicted gambler, he takes control of the expedition and mutinies against the Spanish Monarch, stopping at nothing in his ruthless and blind pursuit of riches.
Having influenced filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola to make Apocalypse Now (1979), it’s a stunning cinematic nightmare and will leave you pondering with awe the discovery and exploration by Europeans of the new world.
Werner Herzog, the infamous German director of 62 films, and documentaries who became famous during the 1970s and 80s for his collaboration with the brilliant but unstable German actor Klaus Kinski, later made a documentary about his volatile relationship with Kinski after he died in 1991 called My Best Feind.