Aguirre, the Wrath of God • Herzog and New German Cinema
Greenscreening Series #39
October 27, 2023
October 27, 2023
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In the 16th century, a Spanish expedition led by the infamous Don Lope de Aguirre leaves the mountains of Peru and goes down the Amazon River in search of the lost city of El Dorado. When great difficulties arise, Aguirre’s men start to wonder whether their quest will lead them to prosperity or certain death. - TMDb
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"The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new cinema” - Oberhausen Manifesto, 1962
Recall that Germany in the 1920s and 1930s had one of the more robust film industries in the world, with innovative special effects and highly stylized production design. German Expressionist film style influenced many of the classic Hollywood genres. With the rise of fascism, Germany also exported numerous world-class filmmakers to Hollywood, and the persecution of Jews throughout Europe led to more talented writers and directors from Eastern Europe moving across the Atlantic.
After WWII, both the American-led Allies and the Soviet Union tried to control the German film industry after the War. Both parties were concerned about the industry’s power and abuses before and during the War, so content was heavily controlled, and most of the films shown in Germany from 1945-1960 were either American, French, or Soviet. German films from the era mostly mimicked Hollywood styles.
In reaction to the creative stagnation of German Cinema, and inspired by the French New Wave, in 1962 a group of young filmmakers issued the Oberhausen Manifesto, committing to creating a new German film industry marked by artistic excellence above commercial concerns.
Most of the original signatories are relatively unknown, but some of its later adherents, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Volker Schlöndorff, became globally famous as the faces of the New German Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s.
New German Cinema was marked by an emphasis on smaller, daring, personal films. Many of the directors cut their teeth in German television, since they had alienated the film industry with their manifesto. As a result, they worked fast, on tight budgets, and were incredibly prolific. When making films, these directors took inspiration from Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave, but also blended an abiding love of classic Hollywood films and film genres into the mix.
Fassbinder’s films tended to be heady and theatrical. During his brief career, he was ridiculously prolific, directing 40 films in 17 years, including the classics The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978).
Wenders is a romantic, largely making road films during the 1970s. He's best known for the American road film Paris, Texas (1984), along with the classic Wings of Desire (1987), which was remade as City or Angels (1998) featuring Nicolas Cage and the Goo Goo Dolls song Iris.
And then there's Werner Herzog. One of cinema’s great artists, adventurers, and independents.
Herzog was born in Munich, Germany in 1942, right at a crucial point in World War II. When he was an infant, a bomb struck a nearby building, caving in the roof of his apartment. His mother discovered him in his crib, covered in broken glass, bricks, and rubble. They moved almost immediately to the remotest part of Bavaria.
Herzog grew up in rural Bavaria without electricity and running water. His father wasn’t part of the picture. Herzog didn’t see films growing up, only learning of cinema through school when he was 11 years old. He didn’t make his first phone call until he was 17.
He decided in high school to become a filmmaker. He learned the basics by reading an encyclopedia - roughly 30 pages of information. He started a production company while still a teenager, and self-financed his first films because he was too young to be taken seriously.
Herzog made his first films using a camera that he took from the Munich Film School. Some would say he stole it, but Herzog said he doesn’t consider it stealing because he felt he was exercising a natural right to put the camera to its intended use. As he tells it, he took it on Friday intending to film over the weekend and return it Monday, but by Tuesday he was still filming and just kept right on going.
This renegade mentality continued throughout his career.
Herzog’s first feature film, Signs of Life, was about three soldiers during WWII who become stir crazy and then legit crazy while recuperating from injuries. It won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and launched Herzog’s career.
His second feature, Even Dwarfs Started Small, was an absurdist comedy about dwarfs confined to an institution who rebel against their guards and caretakers, and was a reaction to the social and political turmoil sweeping the world in the late 1960s. The film wasn’t quite as successful, but Herzog kept right on going.
For his third feature, Herzog was inspired by a short paragraph from a children’s book about explorers, about Don Lope de Aguirre. He was struck by Aguirre’s brashness. Aguirre sailed the length of the Amazon in search or El Dorado. When he reached the mouth of the river, he set out for the Caribbean on order to steal all of South America from Spain. He called himself “the Warth of God.”
Herzog describes the film this way in his memoir, Every Man For Himself and God Against All:
Aguirre, the Wrath of God is about a band of Spanish conquistadors in the Amazonian lowland searching for the fabled golden city called El Dorado. Lope de Aguirre leads a rebellion, and in his mad pursuit of power and wealth, the expedition turns into a catastrophic sequence of illusion and self-destruction.
Herzog claims that he wrote the screenplay in two days, writing non-stop every time he had a break from other activity, including during a road trip for a recreation league football match, in which he had played goalkeeper.
In his original script, there was very little dialogue; Herzog intended to improvise much of the dialogue with his actors once they were in the jungle and shooting, so that it felt more naturalistic. Additionally, it was common practice in German films at the time (as with Italian films) to dub dialogue during post-production, so what was said on screen didn't really matter.
In fact, much of the production didn’t have a plan. Herzog was still feeling out his preferred method of filmmaking, but it didn’t involve storyboarding or detailed planning. Instead, he opted to figure it out on the spot. Which, since he chose to shoot the film on location in Peru, mostly on rafts, was a decent decision. Nothing would be predictable anyway, so why not adapt to what the river and jungle threw at you.
Herzog has long maintained that he wants his films judged by what’s on screen, not by stories about the working conditions or challenges. But he’s also shared a lot of these stories, and the production of the film was almost too crazy to invent. I’ll try to be brief to honor his wishes.
With the choice to shoot on location in the Peruvian jungle, the cast and crew basically had to do everything that the conquistadors had done - climb mountains, forge their way through a dense jungle carrying a bunch of equipment, and of course, ride river rapids on rafts built by local craftworkers.
"From beginning to end, the filming was beset with uncertainty and risk. We all were living and drifting and shambling about on our rafts — the actors, the tiny technical crew of eight — and the real raft we were shooting was always one or two bends in the river ahead of us. We usually didn’t know what was waiting for us round the next bend." - Herzog in his memoir.
Chaos and challenge were waiting.
Pretty much everyone got sick at some point during production, causing delays and a pervasive spirit of misery.
Food was hard to come by. Herzog had to barter with locals every few days to resupply; at one village he traded his nice shoes for a bathtub full of fish. At times, they couldn’t find enough food to feed everyone.
About halfway through production, they lost everything they had shot. Herzog had paid a Peruvian company to ship the film negatives to Mexico, but they never turned up. Herzog’s brother snuck into the Peruvian customs office and found their film sitting on a pile of trash, stamped by customs. Apparently the Peruvian company had bribed the customs officials to stamp the negatives and dispose of them. The film negatives had been ruined by sunlight exposure. With such a small budget, Herzog didn't have insurance, and insurance wouldn't have recovered the lost footage anyway. Herzog basically had to restart the film from scratch, from farther up the river. Herzog kept this a secret from his cast and crew, lest they give up on the project altogether.
And of course, tempers flared between cast and crew.
Herzog and his lead, Klaus Kinski, had a particularly challenging relationship.
Herzog had known Kinski since adolescence; Herzog's family lived in the same boarding house as Kinski for a season of life. At the time, Kinski was a struggling actor, a real starving artist type, who frequently went into fits of rage and broke things. One time a theater critic came to dine at the house and praised Kinski's recent performance; Kinski responded by throwing potatoes and all manner of utensils at him. When he was eventually, inevitably evicted from the house, Herzog's mother was the one who had to deliver the bad news, as the landlady was too frightened of him.
Though he was just 13 at the time he met Kinski, Herzog vowed to someday work with this actor, recognizing Kinski would be a star.
Kinski did in fact become a star, but he was never quite as good with other directors.
While the two brought out some of each other’s best work, they also brought out their tempers.
Kinski wanted to play Aguirre as big as possible, with lots of energy and intensity. Herzog wanted a more subdued, less shouty performance, with more simmering menace. To get his way, Herzog would provoke an argument, let Kinski rage and scream at him until he was fatigued, and then shoot the scene.
At one point during an argument on set of Aguirre, Kinski was furious at Herzog over an issue with the crew. Kinski decided to leave the production, and obviously Herzog pleaded with him to stay. When Kinski began to physically leave the set, Herzog threatened to shoot Kinski and then himself if he didn’t stay to complete the film. Kinski stayed. Over the years, this story has evolved to the anecdote “Herzog once held Kinski at gunpoint to make him act,” which Kinski disputed, claiming he was the one with the gun on set (which was in fact true, as he once fired a gun at crew members who were making too much noise).
Herzog, ever interested in working through things cinematically, later made a documentary about their working relationship, My Best Fiend (1999).
If these myriad production issues sound familiar, it’s because Coppola relived many of them while making Apocalypse Now. Coppola loved Aguirre and was inspired to take his production into the jungle, only to encounter many of his own challenges and miseries. Herzog was working with a fraction of the budget and crew that Coppola had, which probably saved some complexity and difficulty, while presenting its own challenges.
In spite of everything, Herzog maintains to this day that if he were to make the film over again, he’d do it similarly, with a small crew in the jungle.
All the difficulty really pays off in the finished film. The jungle is not just the setting, it’s a character in the film. In a world now where so much is shot using green screens and computer-generated effects, the sheer physicality of the locations and acting in this film are mesmerizing.
Herzog pushed the boundaries of filmmaking to the extreme, and in doing so, opened up new possibilities for creating the sense of immersion and danger by quite literally immersing his film in the environment and embracing danger.
The film is a parable of human folly, and a bit satirical. And what better way to tell that story than by doing something a bit foolish.
The conquistadors head up the river for a few reasons - land, evangelism, and gold. It becomes clear pretty early on that evangelism is merely cover for their greed and ambition; a tool for becoming rich and powerful and absolution for any wrongs they need to commit along the way.
Their search for El Dorado pretty much involves asking a villager for directions, getting a vague mumbling gesture up the river, and then setting out towards inevitable failure.
The Europeans’ arrogance is almost comical. They bring vestiges of European culture with them, like salon chairs, which are ridiculously out of place for a dangerous trip on the river. They assume that just by passing down the river, they claim the territory for themselves, when it’s painfully obvious from the outset that they don’t stand a chance of subduing the jungle.
Things start to go awry. Sometimes it’s the ramshackle rafts getting stuck. Sometimes it’s illness and lack of food. Other times it’s a barrage of arrows fired from the bushes.
Madness begins to set in. Or was it always there? In the case of Lope de Aguirre, as played by Kinski, the madness is barely contained from the outset.
Aguirre leads a mutiny and eventually consolidates his own control over the mission - and by proxy, over the empire he’s claiming for Spain. He’s equal parts ruthless and delusional, and he steers the expedition towards its logical end.
Aguirre’s madness is by turns terrifying and comical. His threats against his fellow mutineers are absurd in their cruelty: "Anyone who even thinks about deserting this mission will be cut up into 198 pieces. Those pieces will be trampled in until what is left can only be used to paint walls."
A lot of what happens on screen is also comical, even though the audience may not be laughing. Herzog seems just as interested in the dark humor of it all as he does the intensity of this adventure.
The result is an adventure film unlike any other, an action film without a lot of action, a thriller without jumps or with few payoffs. Most of the tension builds through the location, the acting, an occasional burst of action, and a haunting score. Herzog inspired many films with Aguirre, but few were made with such restraint and constraints.
There are two spectacular images which bookend the film. First, the Spaniards and their enslaved native porters climb down a mountain to the river. They look like ants marching down a hill. The scene is engulfed in thick misty clouds. Herzog may not have planned a lot heading into production, but he was awfully good at finding art on the spot.
The final image of the film shows Aguirre, alone on a tattered raft, surrounded by monkeys. He’s still pursuing his journey down the river, clearly doomed. And he rants to the monkeys about his greatness. This is Aguirre’s full realization of his empire.
In his memoir, Herzog reflects on a few different paths he could have taken with the ending of Aguirre:
"The original ending went like this: the raft with the conquistadors has nothing but corpses on board, and when it reaches the mouth of the Amazon, the only living creature on it is a speaking parrot. As the Atlantic tide pushes back against the mighty river, the parrot is incessantly screeching two words: “El Dorado, El Dorado.” ... Quite recently, I came upon another, unverified account of the historical Aguirre. Abandoned by all and having murdered his own daughter so that she isn’t witness to his disgrace, he orders his last follower to shoot him. The man sets his musket against Aguiree’s body and shoots him in the middle of the chest. “That was nothing,” says Aguirre, and he tells the man to load again. This time the man shoots him through the heart. “That should do,” says Aguirre, and he falls down dead."
Aguirre, the Wrath of God performed poorly at the German box office, in part because the film opened on German television alongside its theatrical release. But internationally, Herzog’s film dazzled critics and audiences. It played in Paris for over a year, and eventually made its way to the US, where it was almost universally acclaimed.
You can see the film's influence in a variety of directors' work and genres. Obviously our most direct connection in this series is Coppola's Apocalypse Now. But the dreamlike imagery in Terence Malick's films, like Thin Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005) are reminiscent of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. There are also a variety of action films and thrillers that remind us of Aguirre, from Deliverance to Predator.
Herzog has gone on to make 70 films over a 50 year career, a mixture of narrative and documentaries, nearly all of them independent, and all of them tied to Herzog's interests and personality.
Many of his subsequent films involved difficult shooting conditions, from the repeat folly-in-the-jungle adventure of Fitzcarraldo (1982), where Herzog lifted a 320 ton steamer up a river while again directing Klaus Kinski, to filming in Antarctica for Encounters at the End of the World (2007).
Herzog even made a film about one episode from the pre-production of Aguirre. In 1971, while he was scouting locations in Peru, the airline cancelled his seat at the last minute. The plane took off without him, was struck by lightning and crashed, with only a single survivor, who endured a free-fall from 10,000 feet and 11 days in the jungle until she was rescued. Herzog made a documentary about the survivor, Wings of Hope (1998).
He has also acted in a variety of works, including as a villain in Jack Reacher and as a weathered Imperial officer in The Mandalorian. And he once helped save actor Joaquin Phoenix from a car crash.
Ultimately, Herzog’s legacy is his uncompromising filmmaking style and commitment to his vision for each project. Herzog’s cinema is one in which nothing can stand in the way of the truth, and in which there’s no lengths you shouldn’t go in pursuit of the truth.
Every Man for Himself and God Against All Herzog's memoir, jam-packed with details of his bizarre and fascinating life.
Many great bits from the memoir are covered in this Guardian interview and Q&A with Herzog. Werner Herzog on beer, yoga and what he would ask God
The Ecstasy of the Filmmaker Roger Ebert on Werner Herzog. Ebert was one of Herzog's biggest champions throughout his career.
Roger Ebert's Great Movies Essay about Aguirre, Wrath of God.
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