Aguirre, the Wrath of God

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A raving madman, drunk on power and jungle juice.

The Film: Werner Herzog’s 1972 minimalist tale of man’s hubris

The Potable: One bottle of Mirassou Winery merlot

Stories of Aguirre, the Wrath of God’s production have become as canonical as the film itself. Werner Herzog’s first outing with infamous divo Klaus Kinski, the director and star had a volatile relationship. After Kinski attempted to quit mid-production, citing the harsh conditions of the Peruvian jungle, Herzog reportedly held him at gunpoint, threatening to kill first Kinski and then himself. Kinski, certifiable in his own right, once fired three shots into a tent filled with noisy crewmembers, blowing the fingertip off an extra.

Forty-three years before Alejandro Inarritu gave Leonardo DiCaprio a kick in the nuts and sent him into the woods, Herzog and his crew revolutionized the idea of “struggling for your art.” Given this backstory, I was excited to watch what I assumed to be a rollicking adventure flick. An arthouse Indiana Jones. An indie Indy. The solemn choral chants during the film’s opening proved right away that this would not be the case.

Set in the 16th century, Aguirre follows a band of conquistadors in search of the fabled city of El Dorado. The first shots show the explorers descending the narrow, treacherous peaks of the Andes toward the rainforest below. Someone accidentally drops a crate of chickens down a cliff, and one gets the sense that this may have been one of Kinski’s first gripes with the production; promised BBQ wings, he likely had to settle for corn.

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He stars as the most German-looking Spaniard I’ve ever seen, an increasingly maniacal foot soldier who leads a mutiny for his own gain. He leads his men downriver on a boat that was clearly a budget buy. Barely large enough to carry everyone on board, the craft continuously takes on water. Everyone’s socks are wet and the horse is unhappy. Throughout the journey, hostile natives hide along the banks and periodically attack the conquistadors. We never see the attackers, but their projectiles soar in from offscreen. An arrow here, a poison dart there. The explorers get used to it after a time. They swat them away like flies, an arrow to the knee, and, as a viewer, I lose all concern. “They’re fine,” I think.

All of this sounds exciting, I know, but trust me when I say you’ll be standing pretty regularly to refill your wine glass. The space between mutinies is filled with lulls. A humid climate, many scenes include the actors lounging to avoid the heat. One explorer dangles a fishing line in the water. Instead of a piranha, he catches bupkis. We watch a man eat, and we later watch that same man enter and exit a straw hut Porta-John.

The film includes murder, explosions, betrayals, and one guy has his head chopped off mid-sentence, clean cut, only to have his disembodied dome finish the sentence. But, like I said, it’s mostly boring.

By contrast, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the fourth Indiana Jones movie, inarguably the best in the franchise, has rarely a dull moment. Its action beats complement the larger story, such as when Indy survives a nuclear blast by hiding inside a refrigerator. Shia LeBeouf’s high-speed sword fight segues nicely into his swinging through the jungle alongside a cabal of helper monkeys. One scene, in which the gang plummets down three separate waterfalls, Scooby-Doo style, can only be described as delightful.

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Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull have more in common than they realize. Both are about men. Flawed, perhaps, but heroic men, in search of a lost city that may not even exist. At stake are their own legacies, and their incessant ambition puts their very sanity at risk. When you’ve descended to such depths – down the Andes; down three very tall waterfalls – can any man emerge unscathed?

Despite their similarities, the films end in profoundly different ways. While Kingdom ends on a relatively muted note, Aguirre manages to find the object of his search. Standing on a mountaintop, he stares dumbfounded as the earth begins to rattle. An alien mothership emerges from the city ruins before vanishing into interdimensional space. “Their treasure wasn’t gold, it was knowledge,” he mutters. “Knowledge was their treasure.”

It’s easily the dumbest ending in all of art cinema.

Verdict: two crystal skulls, one regular

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