On a bitterly cold night in Chicago, with traffic snarled up downtown and little reliable information emerging about a deadly office shooting that afternoon, could all but ten Chicagoans be forgiven for passing up the chance to see a sharp new print of Werner Herzog’s legendary Aguirre, the Wrath of God on one of the biggest movie screens in the city?
Sure, I absolve them. But I wouldn’t want to be one of them (though I very nearly was, begging tiredness at the end of a long work week until I came to my senses). And I’m still a little mystified that this event didn’t draw better in a city where off-the-beaten-path moviegoing has never struck me as a lonely enterprise.
The main theater at the Music Box is cavernous (seating 750), so the small size of the audience on this evening felt especially pronounced. It was a clash of scales not quite on a par with the incongruity on display in the beautiful and famous opening shot of Aguirre, but weirdly akin. In that awesome shot, a tiny long line of conquistadors and slaves make their way down a steep path in the Andes Mountains. The faraway perspective and the gauzy cloud cover lend this first image a serenity that will prove very short-lived.
The camera soon draws in and the hushed grandeur of the long view gives way to the jostling and weight of armor, equipment, pack animals, and the breathtakingly impractical sedan chair in which the wife of one explorer and daughter of another–each dressed in full floor-length finery–take turns being carried down the mountain. In a way the initial shift of perspective already pronounces the exploring party’s ill fate. As the Spanish descend from mountain to river basin, the camera from ethereal panorama to earthbound close-ups, Klaus Kinski’s Lope de Aguirre is on the verge of descent into a megalomaniacal madness under whose effects he’ll lead a branch of the main expedition down the Amazon to its doom.
This movie overwhelmed me. For one thing, all manner of estrangements converge in it: the viewer’s dramatic historical displacement from the action, which takes place in 1560-61; the characters’ similarly extreme geographical displacement in the Amazonian jungles; and, as their desperation and madness take hold, the increasingly hallucinatory quality of the experience represented. If the past is a foreign country, the plight of people living half a millennium ago as they try to fathom and tame an alien setting is doubly foreign and gripping.
Not that Herzog asks us to sympathize with the explorers–he’s very particular on the point that they’re motivated by the promise of conquest and wealth, and on the point of their cruelty in this pursuit. But even as the disasters multiply and bodies pile up (often seeming to have spontaneously sprouted an arrow that we didn’t see coming and didn’t see hit–the camerawork has an endearingly human, fallible character at these points, as if it’s not quite able to keep up with developments on the raft and from time to time turns an instant too late in a direction where it’s sensed something amiss or askew), some of the base intoxication of traversing an uncharted land stays in play. Even by the celebrated final scene of ruin–this film is bookended by justly famous shots whose visual power beggars description–that sense of awe persists and creates an identification between us and characters we may fear and despise.
At the end of Aguirre, when all of the worst has come to pass and Aguirre’s hubris has been paid for by dozens of men and all that’s left of ambition and wanderlust is a raft full of monkeys, there’s a small part of me that’s still in the grip of the opening shot–the pure wonder and beautiful incongruity and promise of it–and still wishes to be there, being amazed. (The more amazed if I try to put myself behind the eyes of someone who has not seen a hundred movies and a thousand pictures of the Amazon River and environs.) This gaping contradiction, I think, accounts for a great deal of the film’s power. It’s to some degree a contradiction between story and scene–sensually, the Peruvian landscape remains seductive to the very last gasp.
Beauty, wonder, dread, and yes, even its own wryly grim brand of humor: Aguirre is a thrilling thing. If you’re in Chicago, you still have a couple of nights to catch it. In other cities, keep an eye on the art houses.