This being the first review for the month of September during the “National Cinemas” project, and thus the first review in a month-long exploration of German cinema. It seemed only appropriate to go with the best film by Germany’s greatest living filmmaker.
When someone coined the term “Location, location, location”, I don’t think they had Herzog’s films in mind. Yet it’s an apt description for his filmmaking sensibility. As depicted by Herzog, location is a mindscape of pure emotional resonance. He spoke vividly, and still does, about the “ecstatic truth” of the movies, the idea that reality or logic matter not when a film speaks to the rawest emotions of human-kind. And in the Amazon, a place of wonder and desperation where civilization ends and the essences of humanity and the world play out with little mercy, Herzog found his ultimate test-case. Fascinated by it, he decided to do what any great madman would: make a film about it.
And for a film that is all ecstatic truth, what happens within is less important than the savage strangulation of how it happens, or, especially in this case, where it happens. In Aguirre, Herzog gives us perhaps the ultimate “where”. In his Amazon rainforest, he acclimatizes to every detail at a microscopic level, from the suffocating, oppressive , jaundiced green of it all to the omnipresent, thick monstrosities of tree and bush to the impenetrable blank spaces in between, where anything, from a snake to an alligator to all the hopes and dreams and nightmares that make up humanity may lie in wait. They’re always ready to pounce, but Herzog takes his time, as he did with the filming. He emphasizes languid, slow-moving shots to emphasize the perpetual mundanity of “the quest”. What the quest is, as with any Herzog film, doesn’t matter – here it’s a loose exploration of Conquistador Francisco Pizarro’s struggles to find something, anything, in the Amazon– as Herzog is far more interested in the walking void of the obsessive quest as a concept, the act of searching as a self-immolating end in itself. As Pizarro searches, he loses track of his men, and his mind goes permeates out into the air with them.
The famed director dredges up an ever-present sense of creeping dread seeping out of the men into the forest and turning back into them to devour them from the inside. The film isn’t so much about how these men will die or whether they will die but the blunt inevitability of their death. The cavernous, almost impressionist way Herzog films the narrative, giving us a sense of malaised moments throughout their quest rather than an arc or continual narrative, maddens with its eventual bridging of puzzling ambiguity and tiredness. We do not get a sense of time, nor do we truly get a sense of the geometry of location – the place could be a maze to get lost in if it weren’t so heaving, omnipresent, and uncontainable as to move beyond any geometry at all. It exists, and that is all it will let us know about it. There is no way out because it defies the concept of “ways” – we know there’s nowhere for the characters to go; the clutching-terror of human egomania corrosively invades all. They, and we, are moving in circles mentally and emotionally, and probably physically, to the point of stagnancy.
Despite the film’s almost psychotic restraint with dialogue, sound is as key as the visual element. In Florian Fricke, Herzog found a composer to capture his demanding vision, one the result of tension and conflagration and cinema as an existential void. Using an instrument known as a “choir organ”, which features several dozen tapes played at odd intervals over one another, he creates an unending fever dream to complement Herzog’s imagery, the kind to get lost in and not come back. The individual sounds on the tapes may be natural or human, most prominently through choir music, but the stop-start angular artifice of playing them over each sets them against one another with killer instincts. Nature swallows noises more ethereal and otherworldly as we come to understand the bleeding of nature into an assumedly “civilized life” spiraling out of control into a centrifugal maelstrom of emptiness. When the sound subsumes itself to silence, we’re aware that something has been lost, and we feel the endless Novocain blackness of the film’s camera and the hearts of its humans willing us into the only respite of oblivion.
If dread emerges from the film’s barely human actors and grips them in its vice, it does so with no greater force than in Herzog’s long-term coiled volcano of a leading man, Klaus Kinski. In him, Herzog found his perfect match, someone who could echo Herzog’s manic energy, languorous decadence, and perpetual fear and wonder at the world. Kinski could personify it and package it for an audience through the most haunting image of all: his famous thousand-yard stare, the kind that has filled many a nightmare and here both reflects and subsumes the daunting hopelessness and the perverse magic of the location he now finds himself in. In his eyes, we see a man entirely lost yet entirely unwilling to admit it. The film isn’t about dialogue; it’s all about imagery, and every other image in the film is reflected most powerfully in Klaus Kinski. He’s at once an agent of chaos and a victim of it. He desperately wants to stake his claim in the Amazon, and Herzog’s jungle has the perfect solution for him: he can attain the ultimate glory, becoming one with the jungle as he becomes lost in, completed when his inevitable decay returns him to the earth from whence he came.
With Aguirre, Herzog didn’t so much direct his actors as set up the conditions for their demise and allow them to direct themselves. Famously, he dragged his crew to the Amazon with minimal sustenance in an attempt to recreate, and in fact create, the conditions of the characters he depicts, all in the name of cinema as an active agent of destruction rather than simply a passive screen. Something crestfallen exists in their hopeless eyes, their exasperated, almost artificial movements, and their nervous breathing. With Kinski, Herzog intentionally angered him before shooting and then captured him in that twilight moment between rage and malaise, when he was winding down but still uncomfortable. At one point, he famously threatened to shoot both Kinski and himself to keep the famously infuriated and angry Kinski from leaving the set.
Through the raw physical decay of the film itself more than the ghoulish behind-the-scenes stories, we get the sense that Herzog is as unmerciful and controlling as Pizzaro himself. Furthermore, his greatest victim may have been himself, as lost in the jungles as his subject for this film. For every second his slowly meandering camera spends moving away from his principle humans and exploring every facet of the Amazon, capturing something at once there and not-there, we wonder is he’s been subsumed by the jungle’s “voodoo”, as he referred to it, that intangible mood and evocation that casts a spell on those who enter it and refuses to let go. Herzog is famous for his ability to make a film about anything, but his films all share one key element: they’re about a passion, his characters’, and his own. He finds something he wants to learn about, and he makes a movie in the process, if only to prove that he can, to prove that he can step where Pizarro stepped. This film isn’t, nor was it ever, about a jungle. It’s about fanaticism curdled into monomania kindled into frenzy, Pizarro’s and Herzog’s, and it’s about a gasping, living, breathing void ready to test that raw human emotion and swallow it up. We’re not only amazed Herzog came out on the other side. We’re unsure of it.
In the ’70s, no filmmaker tackled the transcendent physicality of nature with more affective force than Tarkovsky, but Aguirre is Herzog’s ultimate refutation, the ultimate proof that he may be Tarkovsky’s negative mirror-image. If Tarkovsky dreams of a world where humans and nature coexist in blissful meditation, conjuring a worldview that cracks the materialistic paint of human society, Herzog summons a nature that could not care less about us, and he materializes a conception of humanity that is frighteningly unwilling to even grant nature an inch of respect. But, for Herzog at least, nature takes a mile anyway, and swallows us in it.