Given its often revolting, sometimes nearly nauseating material and uncompromising style, it may seem odd to say that Aguirre the Wrath of God made me nostalgic. Not for the circumstances when I first saw it and certainly not for its 16th century setting. Rather, the demands the film places on the viewer made me think fondly of a time when imaginative filmmakers could treat audiences like adults and expect to be rewarded for it.
Klaus Kinski stars as Aguirre, one of a group of conquistadores searching for El Dorado in the Amazon jungle and converting the natives to Christianity. With Kinski in the part, we know Aguirre is insane from the beginning. All that remains is to watch the form his lunacy takes on the torturous journey through a forbidding unknown. Although technically second-in-command, Aguirre’s supporting role is purely formal since almost from the outset he sets the agenda, gives orders and, when questioned, punishes with ruthless dispatch.
If it is difficult to understand why the others in the expedition do not question Aguirre’s command, his insanity is dwarfed by the greater craziness of the Spaniards’ mission. Their tools, weapons and supplies are woefully inadequate, their intellectual armor even more so. When, for example, Aguirre proclaims one of the explorers (of noble lineage) “Emperor of El Dorado,” complete with written proclamation and makeshift throne, the rest not only accept the farce. All expect the “emperor” to be cosseted with suitable deference and privilege. Told he is emperor, they behave accordingly.
Coming from the German Werner Herzog, it is tempting to patronize Aguirre as a not terribly subtle cautionary parable about Hitler and people’s willingness to accept authoritarianism. Certainly as the camera whirls around the explorers’ raft near the end and Aguirre proclaims “We shall make history as others write plays,” the self-conscious grandiloquence is more than a little apparent. Herzog gets away with those postures because it is clear Aguirre views himself in such terms, even if they are revealed as mad.
In addition, Herzog’s stunning images have a presence that makes the blood, mud, waste, dirt and sweat so tangible that you wonder how the actors tolerated the conditions without themselves going mad. Even the action scenes have a nearly glutinous tactility. So while the thematic rigging occasionally pokes through, the immersive environment smothers any objections.
As a result, Aguirre works like a hypnotic spell. (Herzog actually hypnotized his actors in his later Heart of Glass.) The film’s trance-like concentration is both its greatest achievement and weakness. Absorbed in the suffocating atmosphere, entranced by the hallucinatory imagery, we can accept just about anything. Coming up for air, the contrivances and manipulation are apparent. Thus nostalgia is actually an appropriate reaction, because the implicit distance between the vision and reality helps to keep things in proportion, even as we enjoy transportation to another time and place no sane person would ever want to experience.