Richard Combs

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649

As a well-formed narrative, in fact moving along at times like Hollywood costume drama with a message to deliver about vaulting ambition, Aguirre, Wrath of God has all the beguiling simplicity of Werner Herzog's first feature, Lebenszeichen. Both are situated in clear historical periods (and in the general context of an invader being gradually driven mad by an aggravated 'cultural shock'—a social and metaphysical displacement), both concern individuals who decide that to cease obeying orders is the key to personal exaltation and to reversing history altogether, and in both, the events that are set in motion by this decision finally wear away the narrative and the hero, obliterating the individual as surely as they fulfil his ambition of wiping the historical slate clean. An obvious difference between the two lies in Herzog's viewpoint on these respective rebellions: Stroszek in the earlier film is allowed to go romantically, all-embracingly mad, with the long final shot reproducing his view of a world receding in the dust and distance; Aguirre is an openly satirised over-reacher, a Shakespearean villain whose thirst for fame and power tips him into a solipsistic madness, a ridiculous puppet … jerked on the strings of his overweening ambition, and finally doomed to drift on the same raft as his more evidently venal companions. Aguirre burns himself out attempting to extend the conquistadors' physical conquest of Peru to the mythical paradise of El Dorado, and the last shot of Wrath of God reveals Herzog working backwards, to mordant effect, through the descriptions of the Creation in Fata Morgana, with a skimming aerial camera approximating the approach of the gods to the benighted desert, to the very first shot of Lebenszeichen, with the army truck carrying the wounded hero away from the action meandering in the distance, like some closely observed bug, over tortuous mountain roads. Here the camera swoops and circles like a curious divinity around the strange apparition of Aguirre's raft, its human crew wholly wiped out and now aswarm with hordes of tiny monkeys, while the 'Wrath of God' himself still stands addressing to the sky his plans for a further "great treachery" in the overthrow of all the realms of New Spain. His figure is frozen in a rigid pose—an imminent fossil of this absurd, illusionist enterprise. The confrontation of the Spaniards with the alien, Amazonian landscape also represents something of a merging of the lyrical detail of Lebenszeichen—the bric-à-brac of past civilisations basking in the sun, as forlorn and meaningless as the hero keeping guard over a useless ammunition dump—and the more blackly humorous and surrealist imagery of the wreckage-studded desert of Fata Morgana. Like the Western Zoologists in the latter film who paw clumsily at the local wild-life, Aguirre at one point holds up for his daughter's inspection, as a kind of love token, a minute baby sloth ("It sleeps its whole life away …"); the turning point in Stroszek's madness, the vista of windmills that finally cracks his tolerance of the infinite multiplication of the signs of life, has its equivalent here in the scene where the soldiers set about plundering a deserted Indian village, only to be horrified and put to flight—despite their need for food—by the rotting evidences of cannibalism. Much of the satiric effect of Wrath of God derives from the way it slides in and out of various movie conventions—this, after all, is the tale of an epic journey, the historically fabricated account of a 'lost expedition' whose conveniently surviving trace is the diary of one of its members. It is also a social drama on Ship of Fools lines, with life on Aguirre's raft a tiny microcosm of the political world—the inevitable cycle of insurrection, consolidation and repression. (p. 4)

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Richard Combs, "Feature Films: 'Aguirre, Wrath of God'," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1975), Vol. 42, No. 492, January, 1975, pp. 3-4.

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