Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Great Last Scenes: Aguirre, The Wrath of God
Director: Werner Herzog
Great Because...: Madness is fascinating, especially when it's on such a grand scale. How much crazier can you get than the lone survivor on a raft in the middle of the Amazon that's being overrun with monkeys, soliloquizing about how he's this close to taking over the world? ...Did I mention the monkeys?
Aguirre, The Wrath of God tells the story of an ill-fated mission to find El Dorado. The journey is an immediate disaster with the Spanish conquistadors attempting to make their way through the dense jungle in heavy armour, dragging canons along with them down narrow mountain paths. Things go from bad to worse as members of the party begin dying, supplies dwindle, and the rafts are carried away when the river rises. As the situation grows increasingly dire, Aguirre, the expedition's second-in-command, gains more and more power.
After wresting control from the expedition's leader, Don Pedro de Ursua, Aguirre rules through oppression and terror as the numbers continue to diminish and the morale of the survivors falls to an all-time low. Finally an attack by Indians kills off the remaining explorers, who are starving and lost in hallucinations. Aguirre is the only survivor and as he paces the raft, trying to drive off the monkeys who are invading it, he states: "I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. Together, we shall rule this entire continent. We shall endure. I am the Wrath of God!"
Although it's difficult to argue that Aguirre is a character who descends into madness - he's pretty much crazy from beginning to end - the extent of his insanity in this moment is truly captivating. He has so thoroughly lost - he is a single man, standing alone against both the hostility of the natives and the hostility of nature - and yet he believes himself to be on the cusp of victory, he believes that this is only the beginning. As Aguirre stands victorious amidst his imagined empire, director Werner Herzog has the camera circle the raft multiple times, as if unable to comprehend the sight. Around and around it goes, trying to see what Aguirre sees but the vision is elusive and the truth of the situation is all too apparent: nature will win, it will swallow this last conquistador alive and bury him deep within its recesses.
Herzog, no stranger himself to impossible, insane ambitions, is of course largely responsible for guiding the film to this strong, strange end, but Klaus Kinksi, who plays Aguirre, is integral to this success. In his hands Aguirre is a live wire, an intense, brooding presence threatening to explode at any time. His madness isn't showy, it seems entirely natural and realistic and while we don't believe in Aguirre's vision, we believe that he can believe in it. His wrath may ultimately be futile, but if ever anyone was going to conquer the odds and nature itself, it would have to be Aguirre and in these final moments he is mythologized even as his dream is denounced. These final, haunting images from this truly fantastic film are amongst the best ever produced by Herzog - and that is truly saying something.