“Aguirre, The Wrath Of God” (1972)


By Jerome Reuter

If you mention Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart Of Darkness to anyone, the first film that will come to mind is Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Many people are aware of the epic story, of the journey down river into madness. However, not long before Coppola’s magnum opus, another film captured the spirit of Conrad’s novel. Werner Herzog’s 1972 film, Aguirre, The Wrath Of God. Although not a direct adaptation, it remains one of Herzog’s greatest achievements as a filmmaker.

It’s the story of a group of Spanish conquistadores, floating down river in search of the mythical city of ‘El Dorado.’ It’s the character of Aguirre however, that  brings this film to life. Played by longtime Herzog collaborator, Klaus Kinski, this is one of hid greatest performances. The mad conquistador, who symbolizes something deeper.

I feel Aguirre represents the Antichrist, the grand deceiver. Throughout the film, he constantly sews the seeds of manipulation and greed. He’s somewhat like a puppet master, hiding behind the curtain, using others upon his stage. To achieve his own  goals, he stops at nothing, even murdering his own comrades.

As the raft flows downstream, its’ occupants flow deeper into madness. The ship even comes to represent a corrupt European kingdom. Aside from Aguirre, an interesting array of characters can be found on board. The slave, upon who’s back the toil is placed upon. Their King, a fat nobleman constantly gorging himself, and apathetic to anyone else’s needs but his own. The priest, who’s only interest is spreading the Catholic faith. Their journey ceases to be one of travel, and one of mental degeneration. The films conclusion has Aguirre making his true intentions known, it isn’t what one might expect them to be.

Herzog’s camerawork in this endeavor, becomes the ultimate storyteller.  His crew achieved this, by following the ship on rafts for several months. The images he captured, are nothing short of remarkable. Braving the elements of the Amazon, he captures the sharp contrast between man and nature. He also takes us on a journey, that shows us the dark side of human nature.

Several years later, Herzog would return with Kinski to face nature again. This time, for the filming of Fitzcarraldo.

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