Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Post image for Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Tuesday 18 January 1983
Heidelberg

Saw – at last – Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God yesterday. A marvellous film, all the better for being viewed in German: it allowed me to concentrate entirely upon the images. The experience of watching films in foreign languages inclines me to think that in the best films, dialogue is all but irrelevant. The real action is in the image, and in the sequence of the images.
What is so brilliant about the way Herzog directs is that he makes the fullest use of the camera’s descriptive genius (descriptive, and not analytical): he frames a shot and lets it run for whole minutes, allowing the camera to record the way the world describes itself. Thus we concentrate on Pisarro’s face in the centre of the frame but are at the same time fascinated by the soldiers in the background – the angle at which they hold their heads, the various kinds of helmets they are wearing, the way they scratch their faces, move their lances as they shift from foot to foot. Partly because of this camera technique, I would class Aguirre as one of the few truly historical films I have ever seen. Herzog is fascinated by the detail of his subject, as much as he is obsessed by the design of the whole. To him, the way those listening soldiers scratched their faces (not their heads, as they would have done in buccaneering Hollywood) matters.

The finest part of the whole thing was the final sequence. All the expedition are dead, save for Aguirre himself. He stands in the centre of the raft, alone, staring into the distance which will bring him nothing but his own death. This is in medium long-shot. Then the camera tracks in – fast – and as it reaches the raft, begins to circle. Round and round it circles, once, twice, as Aguirre himself turns on the spot, shifting his weight around in that funny, sinister movement his gammy right leg gives him. The raft is covered with corpses and with chattering little monkeys which Aguirre cannot – does not even try to – drive off. He modelled himself on Cortez, who disobeyed orders, went on searching, and discovered Mexico. He ends up floating down the river on the mad, pathetic raft of his own fantasy. That final cycling by the camera is a stroke of genius. (And the horse left behind, just standing on the riverbank, its head in its blue-and-white headdress just sticking out through the leaves of the trees: that, for me, was the real moment of finality in the film.)

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