Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Aguirre, the Wrath of God ★★★★★

Bodies on a raft, a monk stood mid-stream in mourning. A burning village, bodies and bones in plain view. Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a journey into madness, a descent into hell. It is made with a desperate energy, a sense of reality crushing history into a compact treatise on one man's illusion and his powerful obsession. It is a stupendous work of art, one of the greatest films to ever exist.

You feel all the effort and craziness that went into the journey of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Through the beautiful landscape, the characters travel, as did an entire film crew, and the camera shakes - a handheld, improvised madness - and creates a mixture of the crazy and the real, a raw documentary style capturing the story. The camera moves around, barely clinging to anything as it bounces around the setting. Water drips on the lens, the camerawork clambers through mud and jungle as much as the characters. These people are travelling from the clouds, embarking on a slow trudge through an unforgiving landscape. They leave behind the dead because they have no other choice. The splendour of the scenery cannot distract from the toughness of their journey, for which they are wholly unprepared. The arrogance and ego of man to take horses and men unfamiliar to the land on this journey through the rainforest is astonishing. They are trying to bring God to heathens, but they are punished for trying (is God angry at them, or is this a test?). God is not seen or heard here, he does not help the characters. The only thing which finds them is nature, which even finds those on a raft in the middle of nothing. These people are free to experience nature, and perhaps that is God's gift. There's a boat in a tree, a miracle with no precedent, perhaps an illusion to witness because belief and nature was not enough for the characters. Their journey is pointless, but they are being carried by a current, and it's a journey they can't go back on. They ride the river, which is a muddy, ferocious, and beautiful death trap. The sound of scared, barely audible pan pipes plays over the dark river, a brief respite from the silence - the silence before death, the grim silence of a world where no one reveals themselves. Aguirre, the Wrath of God is the story of a mysterious journey, one which is unanswered and implicit. It's a story of men and God and a very real journey where God is just a substitute for silence.

Aguirre is a brutal and unforgiving character, someone who does not care for God, or at least isn't scared by him. His love and passion goes only towards his daughter, who he will make a queen. The way he delicately holds a sloth in his hand, to show her nature, is his only act of kindness in Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Luckily for Aguirre, he's so far from civilisation that the laws of God and class do not matter. He embarks on a Machiavellian power play - he no longer relies on fate, he will take power and riches through his own strength and cunning. He creates a new world, a new kingdom floating on a river, headed by a crying emperor sat on a throne that holds no power. Everyone accepts this as they all sip on the dream of El Dorado, a dream which is different for each individual: a dream of wealth, or freedom, or divine salvation. But power is fleeting and only upheld by force, if you have no soldiers you have no position. The hunger of the poor and powerless can and will rise up against those claiming power when they have no claim to it. Aguirre prods this instinct in others until he has all the power he wants. He accepts total power over very little, rather than limited power over more. He is unstoppable, he is the wrath of God, the conqueror of this small group of men, and through them he will make it either to madness or to El Dorado. Aguirre cannot keep still, he moves as if spasming in pain or as if he is never unrested. He drifts in circles, an illusionary power over those who cannot stand. Aguirre is the God who has sinned, someone unable to wisely use power. His created world is a dying raft, with one man standing tall, and everything else at their end. There's no empire, no legacy, no God.

Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God is an amazing work, a slice of perfection served meekly. It is a film of madness, told by a madman. It's bold and bizarre, a cinematic empty vessel, stripped back to just a story and a camera. It could be about many things, perhaps it's about how God is both Aguirre and his surroundings, but really it's just a journey. It's a journey from man to God, or God to man, and there's something both incredibly elegant and messily raw about that.

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