20 August 2006

Aguirre: The Wrath of God

A fascinating film. It took me awhile to warm up to it, but by the end, I was mesmerized. Alas, I missed the first 5 minutes or so because of projector problems at the theatre, and I think I missed some opening captions that set up the action. But basically, the plot centers around a group of conquistadors in (I believe it is) 1568 who are searching for El Dorado. Someone on Netflix posted an interesting comment about this movie: "Perhaps the strongest point in favor of the film Aguirre, The Wrath of God is that it can be viewed differently depending on your preferences. You can watch it as serious drama or as amusing camp, as a historical reenactment or as total fiction." I would say that this is actually the point - that it's both. Not just the movie, but really, history itself.

Made by Werner Herzog in 1978, it looks very crude, with garish colors and clumsy shots. Everything is up close - almost too close. One can't help but feel a sense of absurdity over the fact that the Spanish conquistadors are speaking in German - one notices this in any historical drama I suppose, but it's heightened here. I don't know if it's intentional, but the fact that the English subtitles appear on screen a good minute before the speech they are translating is heard contributes to the effect. Of course, historical dramas are generally done in the wrong language, but here it's somehow far more noticeable, though maybe it wouldn't seem that way to a German audience. But then again, in fact, Spanish was every bit as alien to that land as Germany. These people were completely out of context. And the use of German sort of drives that point home in an interesting way.

The movie teeters between camp and high drama in a very strange way. Is Aguirre a madman or a visionary? Is there a difference? Is he a comic figure, or a tragic one? Kinski's portrayal is brilliant, in that it's almost a caricature, but not quite. He's both bizarre and charismatic.

So what you have is a bunch of guys, starving and sick, floating down the river on a raft, planning on taking over a continent. And furtively documenting their efforts in legal titles, etc. And you can't quite figure out if it's supposed to be the history channel or a Monty Python skit. Is it meant to be funny? Look at the Priest, for example, the guy who keeps talking about enlightening the savages as his companions set about massacring them. The great thing about the movie is that it doesn't glorify him, or cast him as a hypocrite, or mock him, or even pay him any particular notice. The whole tone of the film is flat, not accentuating anything. The cinematography is brilliant in its tonelessness. It's not a Heart of Darkness story. It almost refuses to be any kind of story at all. The events aren't mobilized into a grander narrative - they're just sort of stuck in, and one has no idea what to make of them.

The ending, with the raft spralling in circles as Aguirre paces amongst the bodies of his companions, raft overrun by monkeys, ranting about the new world he will found, is genius. It's moving, funny, and terrifying all at once. I wouldn't call it comic, but rather, wrenchingly absurd. Certainly, there must have been scenes like this in such settings. Watching it, one simply doesn't know how to respond emotionally, and the movie doesn't offer any guidance.

So you watch this movie, unsure of how to respond, and then you think, or at least I did, but isn't this kind of how it happened? A band of Spaniards rolled into South America and deemed it theirs? And isn't it both hilarious, astonishing, and horrifying, that they succeeded?

No comments: