50 years, 50 films: Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)
As we move through the last 50 years, we come across one of Werner Herzog’s most powerful films
What a fascinating place West Germany was in 1972. An entire generation of artists — those born during and shortly after the war — were confronted with a wretchedly troubling compromise. Though there were, of course, honest men like Willy Brandt about the place, the country was, to a large extent, still being run by people who had fought in the war, voted for the Nazis or just shrugged as the country drifted towards madness. After all, the occupying powers could hardly have excluded everyone born in the first few decades of the century from holding power.
This conundrum was behind a lot of the bleak art that sprung up in those times. You can see it in the brilliantly bleak music of artists like Amon Düül, Popol Vuh, Neu and Faust. (The immortal Kraftwerk existed in their own isolated universe.) Heinrich Böll and Gunter Grass, both of whom were actually from that older generation, addressed the complex moral fug in grim powerful fiction. And, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, German cinema was experiencing a staggeringly fecund renaissance. We’re talking about giants such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff, Wim Wenders and, of course, Werner Herzog.
We can fight over which was the greatest of Herzog’s films. But the one that had the biggest impact was certainly Aguirre, Wrath of God. It could be argued that the Germans invented nihilism and Herzog is the non-movement’s greatest cinematic poet. In his great 2006 documentary Grizzly Man, he put his philosophy thus: “I believe the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” Well, that’s nice.
As Northern Ireland was descending into ever greater violence, hijackings were becoming commonplace and — in Herzog’s home town of Munich — the Black September were preparing to assault the Olympics, the director addressed that notion in a hypnotic quasi-historical film about a group of 16th century conquistadors making their way along a river in Peru. If you are reading this, you will probably know that after a while the only occupants of the raft are Aguirre (reliable deranged Klaus Kinski) and a bunch of monkeys. Poor wee monkeys. Aguirre bellows: ”I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. Together, we shall rule this entire continent. We shall endure. I am the Wrath of God!” (Certain recent revelations about Kinski’s relations with his own daughters add darker colours to the conquistadors remarks.)
Featuring a typically sombre score by Popol Vuh, the film counts as one of the great metaphorical journeys into the heart of darkness. It is bleak. It is crazy. But it also has a throbbing beauty to it that becomes more soothing as the journey progresses. Herzog wouldn’t like to hear that, of course. But not every film-maker knows what his own films are really about.
Yes, Aguirre will do very nicely as a summary of the world’s discontents in 1972. For the record, we also considered The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Cries and Whispers, Deliverance, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Frenzy and The Godfather. Yikes! That was another great year. Was it not?