last night i watched the 1972 film aguirre, der zorn gottes. it had been lent to me some in late 2008 by a friend in the north of england. i watched about half of it one night but then received a phone call from my mother. being lazy i didn’t get back to it that night. being even lazier again, i never got to watch it before leaving england, and so the dvd was returned to its owner. last week i finally picked up the herzog/kinski boxset, and last night aguirre got its due attention.
for a nearly-40-year-old film, there’s not much i can say that hasn’t been said already. i’m guessing. there i was thinking about its similarity to apocalypse now – this is mentioned in the opening blurb on wiki. so i’m hardly bringing any fresh analysis to the table. but that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t warrant fresh praise.
its opening is mesmeric. hundreds of slaves and soldiers marching down the side of a mountain, as a terrifying “choir” repeats a series of grippingly terrifying chords. it almost sounds like the “choir” preset on a 90s keyboard, yet that very sound is as stomach churning as any visceral on-screen violence. being a complete city boy, used to home comforts and modern technology, the very idea of such amazonian travel is enough to fill me with dread. factor in cannibalistic savages and a mutinous megalomaniac and it doesn’t really sound like anyone’s dream holiday.
much has been made of kinski’s portrayal of this manic character. i expected 94 minutes of furious tension, but it’s more appropriate to say that he underplays for most of the film, lending even more power to the sporadic outbursts of frenzied anger. he swaggers about the film in an almost drunken fashion, but when it comes to key moments, like when a supposed traitor is saved from death, or when his lackadaisical soldiers rush for food when potentially surrounded by cannibals, the rage within unravels like the flaming barrel of gunpowder he hurls into the river.
perhaps my favourite moment is when he bellows at an unfortunate horse that dares to stand in his way.
and yet, for a film that depicts a descent into madness and a very un-merry band of travellers destined only for their own destruction, it is not without humour. having watched some fellow voyagers die after being struck by poisoned arrows, one man even observes that the cause of his own death is far more sizable.
it has often been remarked that it is bizarre that many german officers in warm films speak with posh english accents, and it is no less bizarre that the spaniards of this film speak in perfect german. compounding this linguistic upheaval is the moment when a “savage” speaks to a former prince in an unknown language, as aguirre and his colleagues look on. the confusion experienced by the “spaniards” is similar to ours as we see aguirre call someone an “arschloch”. or maybe it’s just me. either way i think that it’s an intriguing take on expectations of comprehension which also exposes the frailties and impossibilities of language. this is compounded by the fact that the film was originally shot in english, the common language of the crew, and subsequently overdubbed in german.
then there’s the music. what i said above may be perceived as a slight against the film’s score, it is one that seemed to have been made to thrill and delight by causing no small amount of unease. the music that aguirre commands a native to play in order to calm his men stands out as a delicate moment of peace. this playful ditty, from krautrock act popul vuh (themselves named after a corpus of mythistorical narratives of the post classic quiché kingdom in guatemala’s western highlands) is painfully at odds with the overall tone of the film, and adds to the unsettling nature of every last frame.