Film Follies, Subtitle Subversive

Subtitle Subversive-Aguirre: The Wrath of God

Finally, it is time. So far we have done eleven editions of Subtitle Subversive, but there was absolutely no way I was going to close out the first volume of a series about foreign film without one of the greatest directors in the world. Today we are going to talk about the one and only Werner Herzog and his masterpiece Aguirre: The Wrath of God.
Aguirre is one of those films that is almost more famous for its behind the scenes madness than it was for the brilliance of the film itself. But make no mistake the finished product is indeed brilliant. The story follows an expedition of Spanish conquistadors as they head deep into the jungles of Peru searching for the fabled city of El Dorado. Beset by internal conflict, attacks by the natives and nature herself; the expedition descends into madness. Slowly at first and then more rapidly as their situation becomes more and more desperate. In the end, the film stands as a bleak meditation on the themes of futility, death, and madness.
It all begins with one of the most ambitious and audacious shots in cinematic history. An aerial shot begins with misty mountain peaks then pans down to show the expedition descending a narrow mountain path to the dense jungle below. The symbolism of the lofty Europeans descending from their civilized perch to the wilderness below would be enough to set the tone for this film, but this shot is so much more than that. Herzog shows us a seemingly unending line of slaves, soldiers, and nobility all moving forward with a sense of inevitability rather than purpose. We see neither the beginning nor the end of the party another notable bit of symbolism. Herzog shows us men in armor carrying disassembled cannons up and down narrow mountain paths. In choosing to open this epic by showing the maddening inflexibility of this centuries-old expedition, Herzog also reveals to us a little of his own madness as a filmmaker. Because this film is not shot on a sound stage somewhere or in the confines of a generic safe location. No, Herzog took his cast and crew into the jungle, every scene was real and raw and earned. And starting with this first scene you realize every shot carries with it two kinds of insanity. The characters and the directors.
It is fitting then that Herzog’s leading man was as brilliant and obsessed with perfection as he was. Klaus Kinski is mesmerizing as the titular Aguirre. His performance is manic and wild but simultaneously cold and aloof. He is a zealot, a true believer. A man of single-minded purpose who is driven mad when reality refuses to comport to his own vision. This is one of the great performances of cinematic history and one that will haunt you long after the screen has turned to black.
As powerful a force as Kinski is though, he pales in comparison to the film’s setting. Filmed on location in the Peruvian rainforest, the story takes place on and along a tributary of the Amazon river. Whether floating on rafts or pushing forward through the jungle the film’s action seem insignificant next to the wild, unyielding jungle and the vast, unending river. Every second of the film reminds the audience of its insignificance when set against the enormity of the uncaring world around them. All of which serves to heighten rather than diminish the story that is being told.
Taken as a whole Aguirre becomes Herzog’s masterpiece, an unparalleled meditation on futility, death, and madness. A work that manages to show the folly of man’s pride even as it proves itself as the direct result of its director’s own arrogance. It is truly a film without peer.

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