I know I’ve harped on this before – sorry – but one of the reasons why I can’t stand to watch new movies is that the special effects have gotten so cartoonish.
During the past thirty years (since approximately “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”), green screens have replaced sets and zeroes and ones have replaced humanity.
“Aguirre, The Wrath of God” is the most pure demonstration of my anti-computer theory. Despite danger, suffering, and stress, this movie was shot on location. And the total lack of technology and trickery is what makes it so compelling.
The entire film takes place in the wilds of Peru, which probably look exactly the same as they did in 1561. The story is a fictionalized account of the real adventure of Don Lope De Aguirre.
When we meet Don Aguirre (played by Klaus Kinski), he is a member of a huge Spanish exploratory expedition. Their mission is to find and conquer El Dorado: the legendary city of gold.
All they have found, though, is sweltering jungle. The film’s early scenes are amazing. The Spaniards are comically unprepared for the reality of the mission. They are trudging through deep mud. The monks are wearing long robes, the women are wearing long dresses, the warriors are wearing heavy armor. The actors look sweaty, filthy, miserable, tired, and scared because they actually are.
The Europeans are prepared for civilization and war. But their only rival is Mother Nature. And she is winning.
The film gets really nuts when Don Aguirre branches off from the main group. He and a few dozen hearty souls build a makeshift raft and head downstream.
As they drift further even, away from civilization, Aguirre’s ambitions morph into delusions. He announces his independence from Spain. He claims everything he sees for himself. He’s going to be famous and powerful.
But he’s nothing more than an ant with a Napoleon complex. The magic of “Aguirre, The Wrath of God,” is how writer/director Werner Herzog contrasts Don Aguirre’s astronomic ambitions with his pathetic and perilous reality.
We see Aguirre floating down the Amazon in a rickety raft, claiming every mile of jungle he sees. Meanwhile, his men get weaker, sicker, and more hopeless.
These scenes are particularly incredible because we know that the actors are really on a raft in the middle of nowhere, and the camera man and crew are on another raft floating next to them. It’s a wonder that nobody died during production.
For a half century, Werner Herzog has been exploring the theme of man’s hubris in the face of nature. Whether it is the gentle bear enthusiast from “Grizzly Man” or an obsessed maniac like Aguirre, Herzog’s leading men suffer from the same suicidal delusion: they think that they are in control. But Mother Nature is the ultimate tough guy; she has a body count that puts the conquistadors to shame.
“Aguirre, The Wrath of God” is not a perfect film. But it is a unique cinematic experience. One that would have been absolutely ruined by computer effects.