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Have You Seen…? Episode 21

Aguirre, The Wrath of God
Wikimedia Commons
Aguirre, The Wrath of God

On this episode of Have You Seen…? David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf talk about the Werner Herzog modern classic Aguirre, The Wrath of God starring Klaus Kinski. It’s a film that set the precedent for Herzog’s vision of humankind and nature

[Clip from Aguirre, The Wrath of God]

David Hast: Scott, have you seen Aguirre, The Wrath of God?

Scott Vander Werf: I have seen it. It was the first Werner Herzog film I ever saw. I saw it in Grand Rapids at the Bijoux Theater.

DH: So you saw it as a re-run years later.

SVW: Exactly, yeah, because it came out in 1972 and I would have seen it sometime between 1978 and 1980. Probably in a double feature with Nosferatu or one of the other films that were...

DH: Another film by Werner Herzog, the new German cinema director. Yeah, I first saw it in the mid to late 70s. I was probably about 19 or 20 years old. And that movie was a unique experience for me. I watched that movie, and at the end, I just sat there with my jaw dropped. I couldn't believe what I'd seen. It was just unlike any other movie. And I did something I've never done since, which is I just stayed in my seat and watched it again. Because I'd never seen anything like it.

SVW: You know, I had a very similar experience. I didn't watch it right away, but I saw it more than once with the initial theater run where when I had an opportunity to see it. And again, I had the same experience at the end. It was even though the story is rather simple and that, you know, you've got soldiers, you've got a certain level of violence in the film. But what really, what I took away from it was more like this meditation on something that I didn't really understand. You know, I suppose it's just the nature of the universe. But you're just so overwhelmed as a viewer, you're overwhelmed with the nature that Herzog presents as these people travel through the Amazon.

DH: Well, and that's Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker. You know, he was one of the leading lights of the new German cinema that hit the United States in the 70s, along with...Rainer Werner, Fassbender, Wim Wenders is probably the best known among them now, well, and Herzog. And you know, this new German cinema from the 70s and into the 80s took the world by storm because they were such interesting films. And yeah, Herzog's films are really unlike just about anyone else. They're obsessive. He's probably the most obsessive filmmaker ever. There are these visionary meditations on, on the massiveness and mercilessness of nature. And then in this huge nature are these human beings who desire to accomplish great things in impossible situations. And sometimes these great things are good things. And in some of the movies, they're evil.

SVW: Yeah, and in this one, it's Spanish conquistadors who want to find the fabled city of El Dorado. And where they think that they're going to have all sorts of gold and that they're able to conquer people and take over the land. And yet they are trespassers and they're surrounded by people who are the indigenous people. Although what's one of the things that's great about the movie is you only get glimpses of them throughout the whole film.

DH: It's true. Well, there's the people they've sort of enslaved the people. It takes place in Peru and it was shot actually shot in Peru on the on the Amazon River. But there are the Peruvians who they've sort of enslaved and forced to lead them on this expedition, the ones that came from the mountains, from the Andes Mountains. But the people that live by the river, you only see at a distance, basically, they're shooting arrows at them.

SVW: Except for one couple. They do interact with one couple.

DH: Right.

SVW: But other than that, it's just glimpses and it's this sort of, this danger that they cannot see and that is truly dangerous.


DH: Yeah, and like you said, it's a very simple movie, right? So it's this story of Spanish conquistadors in the New World in Peru, you know, doing what the Spanish did in the Western Hemisphere, taking over. They're on an expedition, they're in search of the mythical city of El Dorado, and they basically, they get down to the Amazon, and all the land is flooded, and they can't proceed any further, so the leader of their expedition decides to send a group of 40 of them down the river on rafts, and they're supposed to find the city or get closer and send word back. But then soon the officer, Aguirre, who's played amazingly by Klaus Kinski, the first movie Kinski did of Five with Herzog.

SVW: And probably his most iconic role.

DH: Yeah.

SVW: Or maybe coupled with Fitzcarraldo, another Herzog film.

DH: Yeah. And he's also amazing in Herzog's remake of the silent classic Nosferatu, the vampire film.

SVW: That is correct.

DH: He's great in that. But yeah, he's most famous as Herzog is still, I think, most famous for Aguirre, the Wrath of God. So anyway, this Aguirre officer is power hungry. And then before long, we start to see he's quite insane and takes control of things. And then we see what happens.


SVW: Now, one of the things that I found interesting and I didn't maybe the it's maybe there's an explanation in some of the dialogue that I that I missed. But the fact that the Agary character has his teenage daughter along on this journey is kind of bizarre. And then one of the officers has his wife along on this journey, you know, which was just there was to me, there was a big question mark. Like, why are they in this dangerous situation by their family members.

DH: Well part of it, it shows that absurdity, that the Herzog thing where he shows the absurdity of human beings in nature trying to accomplish things. And here you see these people, they're hiking through the Amazon, but they're wearing like, I mean, the conquistadors are wearing their military stuff, right? But they're still wearing heavy armor and stuff, which is impractical. And then they're carrying the women in these like carts and stuff, you know, they're dressed up in regular dresses like royalty and. It makes no sense, but that's Herzog. And I mean, we should say that the story sounds simple, but really what makes it so amazing, the reason why I saw it that first time and couldn't believe what I'd seen is it's just visually amazing and the way he shot it. Right from the opening scene when they're like ants going down a mountainside enveloped in clouds, and then there's just these endless shots of them on the rafts and the river, these circular tracking shots around the rafts and it's just very existential and surreal and Herzog's style was almost documentary style. He just turned on the camera and made stuff up as he went along. He was even quoted about this movie, this movie in particular, saying, I did not know the dialogue 10 minutes before we shot a scene, you know, they were like just making it up. And nowadays, Herzog is far better known as a documentary filmmaker. The second half of his career, he's done many more documentaries, movies like Grizzly Man, or Encounters at the End of the World about Antarctica. And then he-

SVW: He did a film on the death penalty, or on executions.

DH: Yeah, but all his documentaries have an element of storytelling to them where, you know, is it real, is it not? And Herzog's basic idea is that everything he shows is real in some level.

SVW: Well, it's funny about the dialogue was created 10 minutes before they shot it and you don't remember the dialogue. You remember the sound of the river. You remember the sound of the wind in the in the vegetation and the sound of birds and other animal life. That's really the main dialogue in the entire film.

DH: Yeah, it's all told visually. It's and with sound and it has an amazing soundtrack to by the German electronic band Popol Vuh. I'd never heard a soundtrack like that before this kind of droning electronics.

SVW: And you know, you mentioned about your experience when it ended, you had to see it again. And the final shots of the film have been implanted on my brain. We don't wanna give away any spoilers about what happens to the characters at the end, but it's just this overwhelmingly mysterious and just almost hypnotizing series of visualizations that happen at the end of the movie.

DH: Yeah, and that ending and the visuals of it is where we really see Herzog's, the way he shows the extremes of humanity, his obsession with rebels and outcasts and with madness, in particular, insanity. And it's even funny in parts. We can look at Back to Encounters at the End of the World, his more recent documentary about Antarctica. And in that movie, at one point, he asks one of the scientists, is there insanity among penguins? And you laugh when he asks it, but then they show this penguin that walks into the interior to certain death. And you go, yeah, that penguin's insane. And you understand Herzog's kind of strange worldview that has a ring of truth to it.

SVW: All right. Well, thank you, David.

DH: Thank you.

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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