Tony Rayns

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 794

All Werner Herzog's fictions evince a fascination with the mechanisms of human madness—especially those engendered by the will to power—and yet the uniquely disturbing quality of his movies seems to spring less from this consistent theme than from a central ambivalence. Like one who at once observes and participates, Herzog balances between two positions, offering both lucid analyses of chaotic situations (undertaken in a spirit not unlike that of scientific research) and hallucinatory, seductive visions that plunge his audience into active experience of the irrational.

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The analytic strain is, of course, a modernist trait; it yields the entomological metaphors of Signs of Life, the dislocations of physical scale in Even Dwarfs Started Small, and the entirety of Fata Morgana as a catalogue of the debris left in the wake of a 'drama' already played out, the latter establishing an improbable rapport between Herzog and certain contemporary avant-garde film-makers. The strain of irrationality, though, draws on a very much older tradition; it conjures the dark undertow of the German Romantics, immanent in many of Casper David Friedrich's landscapes and explicit in a novella like Eichendorff's archetypal Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts, where the 'hero' is forever on the point of succumbing to mysterious forces that he senses in the forests and lakes around him. In Herzog's case, the point is the balance itself; it might alternatively be characterised as the ability to infect 'realism' with expressionism and vice versa, without any overriding commitment to either mode….

[Aguirre, Wrath of God] is something of a departure for Herzog…. Herzog has used it to engage—for the first time—in a specific historical reconstruction, although the action, like the diary on which it purports to be based, is his own invention. (p. 56)

The factors that superficially distinguish Aguirre from Herzog's earlier movies in fact serve to throw his consistent qualities into sharper relief. As in Even Dwarfs Started Small, the exposition is both functional and extremely concentrated: each scene and each detail is toned down to its salient features. On this level, the film effectively pre-empts analysis by analysing itself as it proceeds, admitting no ambiguity. Yet at the same time, Herzog's flair for charged, explosive imagery has never had freer rein, and the film is rich in oneiric moments of the kind that spark Stroszek's paroxysm in Signs of Life. The extraordinarily beautiful opening scene illustrates the ambivalance. In long shot, the image of the conquistadors descending the Andes pass brims with poetic resonances: the men are situated between the peaks and the valleys, between conquered land and unexplored forests, between 'heaven' and 'earth', shrouded in mists. In close-up, the procession picking its way down the narrow path is presented and defined with specific accuracy; all the leading characters are introduced, the social hierarchy is sketched (the slave porters in chains, the women carried in chairs) and the twin poles of the expedition's ideology are signified through the loads it carries (a large Madonna figure, and an even larger cannon). Neither 'reading' of the action contradicts the other; they are rather mutually illuminating.

Later the distinction between the literal and the figurative (or perhaps the factual and the speculative) becomes less palpable; by the final sequence, it has disappeared entirely. In the last shot, Herzog's camera races along the river to Aguirre's raft and circles it twice before fading out. The effect is to circumscribe Aguirre's fantasy, localising it to the tattered, infested remains of his raft, isolating him from the land he dreams of owning; but the circling motion further signifies that the quest has reached its goal, that there can be no further to go. Just as the dwarfs' abortive revolution found its climax at the sight of a helpless camel, so here the quest for a new world and all its riches finds its apotheosis and its cipher in an image of 'magnificent' dementia.

Herzog never falters on his way to this complex but uncompromising conclusion. As ever, he eschews the easy formulations of political or moral dogma, and avoids sentiment and rancour alike. By now it's clear that Herzog is incapable of dishonesties of this kind; like Buñuel or Franju, he will obviously remain true to himself whatever his subject. The clarity and truth of his method, and the value of his tension between rationality and its opposite, are summarised to perfection in a speech by one of the slaves, Runo Rimac ('He who peaks'), dubbed 'Balthasar' by his captors, when he tells Aguirre's uncomprehending daughter that he pities her and her companions, for he knows that there is no way out of 'their' jungle. (p. 57)

Tony Rayns, "Film Reviews: 'Aguirre, Wrath of God'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1974 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 44, No. 1, Winter, 1974–75, pp. 56-7.

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