Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The City of Gold

Film: Aguirre: Der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre: The Wrath of God)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on big ol’ television.

Sometimes I wonder about the nature of cinematic muses. Some directors become almost impossible to separate from the actors they go back to time and time again. It’s difficult to think of Scorsese without conjuring up an image of DiNiro; Tarantino puts Uma Thurman in as many of his films as he can. Tim Burton appears to be lost if he isn’t working with Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter, preferably both. I believe Dominique Pinon has appeared in every one of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films. The actor most commonly and closely associated with Werner Herzog is Klaus Kinski.

The two made five films together, three of which appear on the 1001 List. Evidently, their relationship was relatively toxic, but it’s also evident that they brought out the best in each other. The rumor is that when Kinski threatened to leave the set of Aguirre: Der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre: The Wrath of God), Herzog threatened him with a pistol, claiming that he’d shoot the actor and then turn the gun on himself. Strangely, this film was not the end of their cinematic relationship, but the beginning.

I admit to an immediate disconnect with this film. It concerns a group of Spanish conquistadors exploring into the heart of the Amazon rain forest, but since Herzog and Kinski are German, it’s German that everyone is speaking. Somehow it doesn’t seem right. Regardless, as the film starts, we meet the conquistadors, led by Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles). The expedition has just crossed the Andes range and is now discovering the jungle. If you ever thought it would be cool or fun to live during those times, the first five minutes of this film will instruct you otherwise. Watching a group of men in heavy armor slog through knee-deep water while carrying a cannon looks to be a ripe slice of hell.

Regardless, the expedition, bent on finding El Dorado, the city of gold, is in trouble. Pizarro decides to send out a group to scout ahead for food, hostile natives, and a clue to the location of the legendary city. This group is headed by Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) and seconded by Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski). They will be presumed killed if they don’t rejoin the main group in a week.

The new expedition heads off and immediately hits trouble on the Amazon. One of their rafts is caught in an eddy and can’t break free. Aguirre wants to push on without these men, but is overruled by Ursua. However, when rescue comes to the raft, it is discovered that the men who were on it are either dead or missing. Ursua wants to rescue the bodies to provide a Christian burial, but Aguirre takes things into his own hands. He hints to a comrade that the cannon should be cleaned, and the gun is fired, sinking the raft and allowing the expedition to move on without delay.

It’s evident at this point that Aguirre really wants to be in charge, and is chafing under the orders of Ursua. When Ursua wants to turn back and return to Pizarro, Aguirre stages a mutiny, shooting Ursua and killing one of his followers. He immediately determines that another of their group—Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling) should be made Emperor of El Dorado. He has their spiritual guide Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) read aloud a screed that officially breaks the group off from Spain and Pizarro, declares themselves to be a new nation, and declares Guzman a king to rival that of Spain. From there, it is determined that the group will push on and look for El Dorado on their own, and that should they find it, they will all be wealthy and famous beyond measure.

However, this trek is doomed from the beginning. They are surrounded on all sides by angry and ferocious natives who prove to be cannibals. Men are frequently picked off on the rafts by arrows from unseen attackers. Guzman turns into a spoiled child, complaining that his roasted fish and fruits lack salt while the rest of the men are counting individual grains of corn as their rations. Naturally, someone commits regicide when no one else is looking, leaving Aguirre now in charge.

And things go from bad to worse as Aguirre begins to lose his grip on his own sanity. Eventually, harassed by the natives and with doom closing in, the raft continues flowing down the Amazon, unable to reach land, with everyone wracked by fever and starvation. It’s pretty bleak.

It’s also gorgeous. The film was done on location in Peru, and the scenery is what really makes for a great deal of the appeal of this film. The rain forest is lush and beautiful, and also dangerous and filled with unseen horrors. It’s a seductive thing, that huge green canopy, both beautiful and terrible.

What is curious to me is looking at the role of Aguirre and knowing something about the history and temperament of Klaus Kinski. He was, by all accounts, the template of the sonnuvabitch, temperamental artiste. When Aguirre the character in the film begins pontificating that he is the embodied wrath of God and that any who cross him will be chopped to pieces and stomped on until all that is left is something that can be used to paint walls, it’s easy to think that only some of it is the character, and some of it is Kinski himself.

This film is, as I say, bleak. The men on the raft battle against an unbeatable, unseen foe and against the terrible realities of starvation and disease. Plagued on all sides and without any help at all, there is nothing for them to do but die, and go down with as much dignity as they can. The closing shots, featuring the ravings of Aguirre as his raft slowly meanders down the huge river and eventually to the Atlantic are terrifying not because of the words themselves, but because of the evident disconnect with anything like reality. It also serves as a reminder that while history may well be written by the victors, there are likely many stories like this one lost in time, lost because there were no survivors of something doomed to fail spectacularly.

Why to watch Aguirre: Der Zorn Gottes: Obsession, and the correlation between Kinski’s character and Kinski’s reality.
Why not to watch: Spanish conquistadors speaking German.


  1. Suspension of disbelief has alway been a necessary requirement for the enjoyment of film.

    Gary Cooper played Marco Polo. Michael Caine and Robert Duval portrayed Nazi officers in "The Eagle Has Landed" without even an attempt to disguise their own non-German accents

    Seems we were even satisfied to have Jeffery Hunter as Jesus Christ with "King Of Kings" with out so much as a second language peeking through the dialog. Then along comes Mel Gibson, throwing 3 languages (at least one long dead)into his "Passion" movie, ruining it for everyone. (Insert sarcastic snicker here)

    Language has become an integral part of the way movies are presented to the audience. "Valkyrie" comes to mind. As the movie begins dialog is in German, but the viewer can practically hear an imaginary switch thrown toggling the dialog from German to English. Others resort to language mixes and subtitles, that bane of foreign films that have kept the commoners out of the arts cinema houses for years. As movies have become more global, it does make it a little harder to accept the "short cuts" taken in the name of film.

    A few others just came to mind.

    John Wayne as Genghis Khan.
    Chuck Conners as Geronimo.
    I don't think that they paid any language coaches for those two.

    As an afterthought, I think that we can see a lot of Kinski's INTENSITY in Daniel Day Lewis and Christian Bale. I saw "The Fighter" last week and was amazed by his performance.

  2. You're right about all this, of course, and I knew that intellectually when I wrote the above review. But there's such a disconnect for me with this movie, and I can't really explain why. It doesn't really detract from the intensity of the film or the overall message and quality--it's just strange to see people dressed in conquistador armor calling someone an "arschloch" (asshole) rather than the Spanish equivalent.

    Kinski's intensity is different than Daniel Day Lewis's or Bale's, I think. They're more method actor, get-fully-into-character types. Kinski, from what I gather, was simply reading his own press and editing out all of the negatives. He wasn't trying to become his characters from what I understand, but instead trying to turn his characters into him.

    Still, on some level, intensity is intensity.

    As for other strange racial castings...I think Rock Hudson plays a Comanche in The Searchers, and of course Alec Guinness plays a Hindu spiritual leader in A Passage to India. Actually, come to think of it, I just watched Black Narcissus and Jean Simmons played a native of the Himalaya region in that one.

  3. The disconnect you seemed to have with the film is a shame, but it happens. A great review and thanks for participating in our Secret Santa Review Swap!

  4. Visiting Germany you would notice something curious: All media is in German. All TV and all cinema. Everything gets dubbed. Every Hollywood actor has a German official voice actor. From a German perspective it is perfectly natural that a band of Spanish conquistadors on the Amazon will speak German.
    Personally it freaks me out.
    I found it curious how relevant the theme of the movie still is today. We are all sailing on that float towards an illusion and our destruction, allegorically.

    1. I guess that makes sense--it just struck my sensibilities as a bit odd.

      Then again, there are times when I really struggle for a reason not to watch something. With a movie like this, I do have to grasp at straws for a negative.