Thursday, October 16, 2008

Currently Watching: Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

Widely regarded as Werner Herzog's most powerful film, I finally managed to see the German filmmaker's tale of Spanish conquistadors.  Most people might know Herzog for his more recent work, "Grizzly Man" and "Rescue Dawn", but his prolific work in German through the 70s and 80s is really what propelled his reputation.

"Aguirre" was shot in the jungles of South America on a budget of $300,000 and filmed with an 8 member crew and only one 35 mm
 camera.  Browsing IMDb after I finished watching it, I noticed some people complaining about the film's amateurish production values.  With virtually no sets, only a bare plot, and several editing flaws and poor camera movements, it's very easy to dismiss Aguirre.  Having known the skill and craft of Herzog through his later work, I think these flaws only add to the overall surreality of the film.  There are several flawed parts, but its final five minutes of despair summarize the intense emotions and the whole dreamlike quality of the world.

I don't know if there is any filmmaker besides Herzog who takes such fascination in watching people.  In both his docs and his narratives, so much of his films hinge on how the camera looks at people and how people behave.  Using many longer distance shots and some very minimal camera movements with extended takes, Herzog is obviously trying to capture the reality of this hunt for El Dorado.  By manipulating the poor production values to work for him instead of against him and by his choice of lens, blocking, and music, the film takes on this other-world quality.

"The Wrath of God" is many things, notably a journey through Hell, a journey into despair, a chart of man's desperation with the world around him.  The venerable Klaus Kinski, who worked numerous times with Herzog, stars in the title role and his intense facial gestures and eye movements help the audience follow the entire emotional register of the band.  A voiceover in the form of a diary by the band's Christian missionary helps keep the somewhat meandering narrative on task.

The film is one of the better examples I've seen lately of how less can REALLY equate to more.  Herzog systematically strips the entire filming artifice back to its primal status, using it how he can to capture things at their most basic.  How fitting then, that after most of the film's cast has died and the rest are presumed to die in the jungle, Herzog develops a complex, circular rotating camera shot for his poetic coda.

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