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Aguirre, Wrath of God

Lending an Ear to the Universe


All live-action fiction films are of course to some degree documentaries of their own making, but some films surely more than others. When Stanley Cavell in The World Viewed interestingly proposes that projections are not recordings he means, amongst other things, that the fiction film is not a document of an event seeking a scientific or verisimilitudinous relationship with what it captures, but a recreation of the world that exists nowhere but in the film that is made. Now if one were simply to film Machu Picchu, for example, then we can say with some confidence that this is what has been filmed. Equally, if we want to see whether a horse’s four legs are off the ground simultaneously (as Muybridge did in 1886 with Horse in Motion) film can record such information, and it becomes a scientific document. It took film to show us that indeed a horse’s four legs can be off the ground at the same time. We might even say of numerous ethnographic, sociological or institutional documentaries that they possess this dimension: that if we were to go into the communities the filmmaker describes, we would expect more or less to find the people in them living a life very similar to that looked at by the film. When at the beginning of Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, a curator talks about a religious triptych and how still images come to life, we  might understandably go the National Gallery ourselves and hope to find her giving a similar talk to the latest visitors. Anybody hoping to hear George Clooney’s pep talk speech in Up in the Air by going to various corporate downsizing conferences is going to be very disappointed.

What does all this have to do with Aguirre, Wrath of God, Werner Herzog’s account of Spanish conquistadors searching for El Dorado in 1560? Perhaps quite a lot if we accept that Herzog’s film is a wonderful combination of the documentative and the fictional, and that it wants to play up the fictional through anomaly and the real through emphasizing the authentic. There is little doubt as we watch Aguirre, Wrath of God that we believe Herzog went to the Amazonian jungles and filmed on a low-budget a disastrous account of Spanish colonialists looking to exploit the New World. As Herzog says, “the whole of Aguirre was shot with just one camera, which meant we were forced to work in a very simple and even crude way during the shooting. I feel that this added to the authenticity and life of the film.” (Herzog on Herzog). Though he would talk of his lead actor Klaus Kinski taking up a third of the budget and living in the only hotel in Machu Picchu, the film feels like an account of the arduousness of its filming. Talking of the opening shot Herzog says, “we filmed it near Machu Picchu, on the side of a mountain that had a sheer vertical drop of 600 metres. It is thick jungle up there…we transported everyone at 2 a.m – The horses, the pigs, the llamas, the canons up there – and when I finally arrived it was pouring with rain…it was indescribable chaos, extremely slippery and quite dangerous…” (Herzog on Herzog)

But if this indicates the director’s interest in reality, then he is equally interested in surreality, in an approach to the real that can incorporate the casually made up, the hallucinatory, and the absurd. The priest’s diary he admits is a fiction, the film becomes increasingly odd in its delineating of event, incorporating a boat in a tree, a head that continues counting to ten after being chopped off, and a leading character who after wearing the same costume throughout the film, disappears into the jungle never to be seen again wearing a completely different item of clothing. And of course the film is in German: these conquistadors are speaking the wrong language. It is as though while Herzog wants to acknowledge that there is a reality in front of the camera, there is also the surreality in filming it. When he describes the arduousness of filming near Machu Picchu it possesses a lunacy matched by his insistence ten years later, when making Fitzcarraldo, in hauling  a real boat over a real mountain, no matter how exhausting and strenuous the task. “…We ended up with a ship weighing 340 tons that had to be heaved in one piece for well over a mile over a steep mountain. At the start the gradient was 60 per cent and we levelled down to 40 per cent, but that is still very steep.” (Herzog on Herzog)

Herzog insist he does not immerse himself in the arduous for the sake of realism. What interests him instead is pushing reality in the arena of “fever dreams and pure imagination”. (Herzog on Herzog) Yet of course the imagination is not quite ‘pure’ and that is the very point perhaps of Herzog’s realist aesthetic allied to an absurdist construction. It is pure however in the sense that it contrasts with the impure narration of Hollywood filmmaking. “Hollywood films might have ‘structure’ to them, but they have scripts that press the right buttons at the right time, which is essentially filmmaking by numbers.” (Herzog on Herzog) In such cinema this isn’t the pure imagination of location, allowing the filmmaker to find the story in the locale, but the impure narration imposing itself on the event. Special effects are part of this impurity now. “Nowadays even six-year-olds know when something is a special effect and even know how the shot is done. I remember when [Fitzcarraldo] was shown in Germany there was shouting from the audiences at the moment when the boat was hoisted up on to the mountain. Little by little they realized this was no trick.” (Herzog on Herzog) Here Herzog insists on the reality of the event to allow for the suspension of disbelief. In a technologically motivated age it is as if people recognize less the story being told than the technology adopted. By relying on reality – on hauling real boats over real mountains – Herzog can arrive at pure imagination.

This is not realism, even less documentary. As Dai Vaughan says, quoting Herzog’s comment about the real ship in Fitzcarraldo, “despite this apparent appeal to materiality, to its pro-filmic properties, it is in no way the same ship as in Burden of Dreams, the film on the making of Fitzcarraldo: and the difference lies in that the narrative, generated by the image of this very ship, defers beyond the ‘End’ title any interest in its circumstances. For all its claims to weight, the universe of film fiction has an ontology similar to that of Bishop Berkeley’s tree, which exists only while we are looking at it.” (For Documentary) Here Vaughan coincides with Cavell: both acknowledge that the film isn’t a document, it is a fiction, and both coincide with Herzog as he insists that what interests him is not realism but finding the necessary means to suspend disbelief. Realism is merely a means to that end, to the ‘end’ credits as Vaughan proposes. We believe in fiction, we don’t trust it.

Though Herzog has made numerous documentary films as well as fiction works, and might on occasion look to dissolve clear boundaries between the two, nevertheless Herzog’s final importances rests on the series of fiction films he made between the late sixties and the early eighties, films including Even Dwarfs Started Small, Aguirre, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Heart of Glass, Stroszek, Woyzeck, Nosferatu and one or two others. It is an oeuvre close to Romanticism allied to Expressionism. It is perhaps a rescuing of Romanticism through the acknowledgement of Expressionism. If German Romanticism in David Piper’s words, “found its characteristic visual expression in three modes, which often came together in a single work  -landscape, overt symbolism, and nationalistic medievalism” (The Illustrated History of Art), German Expressionism often captured well, Robert Hughes believed, “the theme of the city as a condenser of anxiety. (The Shock of the New) Herzog might very rarely film in urban environments, but it is as though he incorporates within his figures a cramped neurosis against the magnificence of landscape.

We can see this in the opening sequence of Aguirre, an astonishing vision of the sublime as Herzog opens on the side of a mountain with mist hovering around it, and then shows us numerous people threading their way along a narrow path looking tired, wretched and confused. They look less like they are awed by the mountain, than crushed by the work of getting up it. Like many of Herzog’s characters they are a little broken, bent and warped – Expressionist figures finding their way in a Romantic environment. Whether it happens to be Kaspar Hauser in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, the dwarves in Even Dwarfs Started Small, Nosferatu or Aguirre,  Herzog is often drawn to men who are gnarled and deformed. As he would say of Kinski’s performance in Aguirre: “the character had to have some inner distortion…when you first see him, he walks almost like a spider, like a crab walking on sand.” (Herzog on Herzog) It resembles Piper’s remark about Kirchner’s Artists of Die Brucke, “a compressed and flattened space is occupied by the angular, almost contorted figures of Mueller, seated, and Kirchner himself, with Heckel and a bespectacled Schmidt-Rottluff standing to his right.” (The Illustrated History of Art) This is the figure of Expressionism, but in Herzog’s work offered in the landscape of Romanticism.

A number of critics have seen in Aguirre allegory, yet Herzog sees this as unhelpful and certainly not intentional. “…There was never any intention to create a metaphor of Hitler.” Just because a filmmaker insists he didn’t intentionally put a meaning into his work doesn’t mean that the viewer can’t extract a particular meaning out of it. But perhaps by allegorizing the film we simplify its aesthetics without quite understanding the complexity of the problematic the director is working with and working through. If we instead propose that the film fuses Romantic yearnings through landscape and neurotic behaviour through Expressionism, we see that Herzog has less something to say (as is often the case in the allegory, from Animal Farm and the Russian Revolution to the Crucible and the McCarthyite Witchhunts) than aesthetic problems to disentangle. It is as if the Expressionist dimension removes any naivety from the Romantic exploration and welds the two together in a certain sort of craziness common to the Expressionists, with a certain health available in Romanticism.

The film is in this sense a work of tensions: the documentative dimension against the imaginatively surreal; the Romantic vision of health against the Expressionistic view of neurosis and anxiety. We see it again in the visual form, between the close-up and the long shot, and the temporal dimension. As Herzog says of the latter, “there is an inner flow to my works, one that cannot be followed merely with a wristwatch.” (Herzog on Herzog) Perhaps the latter comes out of the former: that one reason why his films don’t feel consistent with the clock time of most movies is because the cinematic vocabulary resists a spatial expectation that matches the temporal one. In other words, when a film establishes a shot, we expect the image to be held only long enough for the necessary information to be conveyed so that the next unit of information can then be processed. A character gets out of a car in long shot, the film then promptly cuts to the medium shot of them walking into the building, and to the close up of them going along the corridor. The shots are long enough for us to absorb the information, but not held so long that they impatiently have us wondering why the film isn’t moving to the next shot. Our assumption resides in the human figure being the central component of the image, and the usual notion of the establishing shot is that it establishes our relationship with the characters in space, where Herzog is more inclined to establish space to the very detriment of character, and thus counter our expectations of temporality in film. “I like to direct landscapes just as I like to direct actors and animals”, he says, adding, “most directors merely exploit landscapes to embellish what is going on in the foreground…”(Herzog on Herzog)

By suggesting that landscapes have a part to play in the film, rather than functioning as a prop within the drama, time is transformed. If we think of a couple of examples of landscape as temporally contained within usual temporal dramaturgy we can understand better Herzog’s utilisation. In North by Northwest, Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint scramble over Mt Rushmore trying to escape the villains, as any majesty in the landscape is secondary to the villainy encroaching upon the characters. We are not in a sublime moment of contemplation, but a tense moment of narrative excitement. If the camera lingered over the landscape for an extra few seconds we might think Hitchcock has been derelict in his duty as master of suspense. Likewise, Henry Hathaway’s Niagara offers the Niagara Falls as an astonishing landmark, but the film expects us to attend not to its sublime dimension as awe inspiring; more as terror inspiring. The film allows for a form of grandiose foreshadowing: as we see the sheer volume of water and the speed of the rapids we wonder who might succumb to their power. The landscapes in each instance are modified by the drama, and allows for what Herzog calls wristwatch time. In Herzog it is the drama that is modified by the landscape, and thus escapes into another temporal dimension altogether. When early on in Aguirre a box of explosives falls off the mountain and blows up, even shortly afterwards when the characters lose the rafts after the tide rises fifteen feet, these are not dramatic moments. In the first instance we just see the box fall with no character attempting to save it or suffering from the consequences of the explosion. In the second instance the incident is offered in voice-over and not seen. This is not wristwatch cinema that demands nature serves our sense of the narratively temporal, but a space that opens up the contemplative. Though the conquistadors and their Indian slaves set about making more rafts, Herzog doesn’t offer this as an act of resilience against the force of nature, convincing us of the usefulness of their activities as we hope that they will find their El Dorado, it is contextualized within a greater absurdity that says nature is indifferent to their pursuits, and that Herzog waits for nature to absorb the characters while at the same time acknowledging a certain human nature is absorbing them too. When in the film’s closing shot the camera circles round the raft with Kinski completely mad, those around him dead through disease or punctured by Indian arrows, and monkeys everywhere, the director seems to say this is what happens when human nature meets the naturally untamed. Nature survives and man loses his sanity.

The shot is one of many in Herzog’s films that associate circularity with chaos. There is the concluding scenes of both Even Dwarfs Started Small and Stroszek. In the former a truck goes round and round in circles. At the end of Stroszek Herzog shows a chicken dancing round and round on a circular surface. It is as though linearity is a useless human conceit, contained by a circular existence that man is too arrogant to recognize, and finally sees it only in madness. This doesn’t of course mean people shouldn’t have aims, ambitions and goals, just that one can’t expect them to be fulfilled teleogically. This is partly why Herzog would feel far more affinity with Fitzcarraldo than Aguirre, with a gesture that is absurd yet nevertheless fulfilled, versus a pragmatic pursuit that becomes insane. If in Aguirre, the characters are there to fulfil the wishes of the king and find and found the kingdom of El Dorado, and Aguirre wants to turn it into a personal goal to cover himself in power and gold, in Fitzcarraldo the purpose is initially crazy but gains credence from its execution. The title character wants to open an opera house in the Amazonian jungle, and Herzog follows part of the journey by hauling a real boat over a real mountain to show just how will-driven Fitzcarraldo happens to be. We admire Fitzcarraldo and dismiss Aguirre not only, or even especially, on moral grounds, but also on ontological grounds. We don’t sense that Fitzcarraldo believes in progress. He believes instead in passion. He wants to share his fascination for opera with the world; the conquistadors want to exploit the same part of the world for some version of manifest destiny. They want to conquer the world with their more advanced, enlightened perspective.

Yet we see that this is a new vision of the world, rich in execution (in all senses of the word), but weak in spiritual depth. As Herzog would say of the Australian Aborigines he filmed in Where the Green Ants Dream: “The Aborigines come from a stone-age culture that strongly and practically influenced their way of life until maybe two or three generations ago. There is something like a gap of 20,000 years of history that separates us from them.” (Herzog on Herzog) If western man wants to commune with the soul of existence, better the absurd act of an opera house in the jungle, than the instrumental desire to bring Christianity and civilization to a part of the world which you are going to exploit and pillage. As Eduardo Galeano says in Open Veins of Latin America, “The slaves were called the “coins of the indies” when they were measured, weighed and embarked in Luanda, the Portuguese colony of Angola; in Brazil those that survived the ocean voyage became “the hands and feet” of the white master.” “Yet”, Galeano adds, “the Portuguese were meticulous in baptizing them all before they crossed the Atlantic, and once in Brazil they were obliged to attend mass, although they were not allowed to sit in the pews or enter the chancel.” This is western man turning native Indians into objects of labour and giving them a prosthetic religion to counter the Indians’ much deeper spiritual integrity. The closing shot in Aguirre captures well the madness of man determined to go in one direction (towards El Dorado and a new fortune) and going round in circles instead. It is as though ironically the conquistadors have been caught in the circular time of a belief system that is not based on linearity, but can do nothing with it except go mad. The Indians we assume would not go insane, because they understand much better that circularity is consistent with their ontology, where for thousands of years there has has been no progress in western terms, only season coming and going.

This is Herzog’s rejection of the wristwatch, and yet the director nevertheless sees himself as a storyteller. Isn’t a story usually linear and progressive, and Herzog’s work, for all its geographical exploration, static and painterly? Perhaps; however this is usually based on a misconception, or a limited assumption about what storytelling is about. Herzog sees the role “of the film director as being akin to that of a storyteller at the market in Marrakech who has a crowd standing around him.” In such an instance a story isn’t simply an opportunity to entertain and push a tale forward, but much more an instance of conveying wisdom, the sort of deep intelligence Herzog sees evident in 20,000 years of Aboriginal culture. Herzog’s stories can seem so heavy, so unconcerned with pace and progress, because he wants the films to carry behind them the weight of wisdom rather than the pace of purpose. When he says “there is a great production and distribution system in Hollywood, something we in Europe should be envious of, a great star system and special effects facilities too”, he adds “But you hardly ever find a really good story any more, a deficit that is known to most people who work there.” (Herzog on Herzog) It is as though most of the stories contemporary cinema tells have ever more assertively preoccupied themselves with wristwatch pacing, and left behind more and more the wisdom that defies the clock.

But how does this work out in Aguirre, and Herzog’s work more generally? The director often gives his films geographical exploration as narrative purpose. His work moves forward through time partly because they are often moving forward through space. This needn’t always be so in cinema, and many a film from High Noon to Rio Bravo, from Assault on Precinct 13 to The Fog are based on a high degree of geographical stagnation. They compensate for this through the high level of conflict that is generated out of a pressure cooker milieu. At the other extreme (and yet sometimes incorporating within it the geographically limited) is the nation born. As Gilles Deleuze says in Cinema 1: The Movement Image, “finally, the American cinema constantly shoots and reshoots a single fundamental film, which is the birth of a nation-civilization…it has in common with the Soviet cinema the belief in the finality of universal history.” Both the films of spatial restriction and the films of national expansion nevertheless usually emphasise what Deleuze calls the duel: “”the action is itself a duel of forces, a series of duels: duel with the milieu, with the others…”

Herzog however offers an emphasis that counters the kineticism of the duel and the importance of progress. Though Deleuze fascinatingly incorporates Herzog into the action image, and differentiates two key modes which he calls the large form and the small form, and sees how they work in Herzog’s oeuvre, what interests us is the heaviness of Herzog’s images, as though he wanted them to contain not just conflict, and not just progress, but to turn conflict into an absurd clash of civilizations and progress into an acknowledgement of one’s own ignorant debasement. The storytelling Herzog is fascinated by keeps folding back into time past rather than indicating an interest in time future. It makes sense that Aguirre would be defeated by the Indians and the environment here: Herzog isn’t interested in shallow development that shows man carving up the world for his own healthy gain, but excavating the world and falling into the perforations he creates.

In an amusing article with a serious point, Umberto Eco asks what it means to be a movie Indian. Eco gives as one example: “never attack immediately: make yourself visible at a distance a few days ahead of time, producing easily observable smoke signals, thus giving the stagecoach or the fort ample time to send word to the Seventh Cavalry.” (‘How to Play Indians’) This is a very useful way of giving the cowboys point and purpose, with the Indians no more than an obstacle in the course of the characters’ destiny westwards. It is consistent with the duel Deleuze talks about. Yet, as Eco would understandably claim, it is a pretty one-sided affair. However, this is because the Indians are often not the categorical opposition, but merely part of the environmental obstacles placed upon characters reaching a destination. Is Herzog’s film an inverted western, with the conquistadors involved in their own gold rush? Yet where many a western (even great ones like Stagecoach and Fort Apache) offer the Indians as visible and conquerable, Herzog instead suggests that apart from the ones captured, enslaved and harnessed to the mission, the Indians are invisible and unconquerable. They aren’t part of the rational move towards linear success, but a dimension of the white man’s paranoia and collapse. The arrows fired at the conquistadors seem to come from nowhere, just as the conquistadors themselves seem to be going nowhere. The Indians aren’t placed there to play up the white man’s prowess, but to illustrate the white man’s fundamental absurdity – the po-faced need for teleological goals met with the inexplicable world of a people who understandably want them out of their territory. Herzog’s storytelling is listening to the voice of ancient cultures and placing stories within a context far greater than forward momentum; be it narrational or historical.

Yet this is an approach to storytelling that both absorbs and rejects the documentative. When James Franklin says in New German Cinema that Herzog’s film “are demonstrably and fashionably antiintellectual, he quotes the director saying, “…there is always a key image, everything emerges from that physically, not by analysis.” However, the images he seeks are not those of cinema verite, perceived by Herzog as a documentary movement that merely allows for what he calls an “accountant’s truth”. “Cinema, like poetry, is inherently able to present a number of dimensions much deeper than the level of the so-called truth that we find in cinema verite and even reality itself, and it is these dimensions that are the most fertile areas of filmmaking.” (Herzog on Herzog) Now Herzog might be resistant to his non-fiction films, like Grizzly Man, Little Dieter Learns to Fly, La Soufriere and My Best Fiend, being seen as documentaries, but taking into account Cavell and Vaughan’s remarks this is still what they would happen to be. They might not be conventional accounts of their subjects, but they exist in the real world and not in the fictional realm: they have a relationship with accountable truth over fictional truth. One shouldn’t be too assertive on this point, but when Vaughan indicates there is a difference between Herzog’s boat in Fitzcarraldo and Blank’s boat in Burden of Dreams, it rests on this question of what happens after the film is over. It would seem naive to ask what happened to the fictional boat after Fitzcarraldo concludes, but a hard-nosed pragmatic one to ask the same question in relation to the documentary. Even when a film is based on an actual person, be it Gandhi, Good Fellas or The Great White Hope, when we ask questions about the personage, we are enquiring beyond the diegesis. To wonder where Henry Hill is today is a valid question, since there is an ex-gangster out there in the world, whose life has been fictionalized in film form. But we are then asking questions about a person in the world rather than one about a character in a diegesis. This is partly why we talk of characters and actors in film, subjects in documentaries. In fiction the story splits the figure in two; in documentary the subjects remains indivisible. We can only ask about Henry Hill because he is the indivisible character on whom the film is based (no matter the inevitable assumed names adopted in a witness protection programme); Henry Hill in Scorsese’s Good Fellas is both character and actor: Henry Hill the character; Ray Liotta the actor.

Nevertheless there are of course degrees of fiction making. The film made in a studio is quite a different beast from the one made on location; the film using a very high percentage of Computer Generated Imagery absorbs more of the made-up than a Herzog film shot in the Amazonian jungle. When we see the boat caught up in the tree in Aguirre, we are fascinated by how it got there; not merely taking for granted that it is an hallucination. The director today might use exactly the same shot and we would be likely to assume it is both an hallucination on the character’s part, and a computer generated image on the film’s. It has no reality at either end. But partly what makes Herzog such a fascinating and important filmmaker is that he wants to dissolve the boundaries between fact and fiction not through documentaries that absorb fictional devices (that is another issue), but through fictional films that ask us to take as fact elements of the fiction, and then dissolves the factual into the hallucinatory or the implausible without quite slipping into fantasy. Whether it is the boat in the trees in Aguirre that took twenty five workmen and a week to place there, the boat hauled over the mountain in Fitzcarraldo, the hypnotized cast in Heart of Glass, or one of the titular cast in Even Dwarfs Started Small risking life and limb as he stands on a car going round in circles, Herzog wants the real to invade the fictional. As Bruce Chatwin reported on the set of Cobra Verde, an adaptation of his Viceroy of Ouidah, “other film-directors, faced with the problem of recreating a nineteenth-century African court, would have put it in the hands of set and costume designers and ended up with a fake. Werner, by hiring a real court and not changing a thing except the odd Taiwanese watch, makes up for a lack of historical accuracy by establishing an authenticity of tone.” (What Am I Doing Here) Few filmmakers more than Herzog in his key works have asked how much reality can be absorbed into the hallucinatory; how much hallucination can be channelled into the real. He tells stories that defy our sense of disbelief in several ways, but most importantly he asks that we see his fictional world as a combination of myth-making and actualities caught. They are not recordings of the world, but perhaps closer to soundings of it: he wants to find ways in which to listen to the world in all its thousands of years of resonances. It is as if the film is simply the result of lending an ear to the universe.


©Tony McKibbin