In a career now stretching fifty years and collectively encompassing over sixty features, short films and documentaries, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1972) still stands as one of his defining cinematic achievements – a work that typifies the ‘Herzogian’ film experience. Set in South America during the 16th century, Aguirre follows an expedition of Spanish Conquistadors, under the command of Gonzallo Pizarro, as they search for Eldorado – the mythical city of gold. Quickly tightening its focus on the titular figure of the Spanish soldier Aguirre, after he overthrows his superior Ursúa, the film follows Aguirre and his followers’ doomed attempts to establish a civilisation and search for the hallowed Eldorado. As time progresses, the party experiences a collective physical and mental breakdown in the face of an indifferently harsh environment, countless attacks from the all-but-invisible indigenous tribes and Aguirre’s own restless maniacal ambitions. By film’s end, only Aguirre is left standing on the drifting makeshift raft, deliriously dreaming of a ‘pure’ dynasty he will incestuously conceive with his now dead daughter.

Typifying many of the director’s themes and concerns, as well as providing a primer for his various ideological and aesthetic idiosyncrasies, a great deal of critical and academic ink has been spilt in evaluating the film’s intended meaning, not to mention the significance of Herzog’s legendary location shoot – Aguirre was hazardously filmed in the Peruvian jungle, thereby situating a colonial re-enactment in the same region that was trampled upon by the real Spanish conquistadors some four hundred years earlier – as well as assessing the impact of his notoriously and openly lax approach to history. For many critics, Herzog’s decision to mirror the onscreen ordeals of his cast and titular character with a similarly hazardous location shoot encourages a reading of the film as possessed of an indivisible permeability between the director and his subject. Cynthia L. Stone, for instance, argues that Herzog’s concept of Aguirre should be viewed as representing a certain facet of the director’s own psych – “the monolithic figure of the artist as half-crazed outcast” (1):

For Herzog, history and fiction are one and the same. To make history (like Aguirre) and to direct a play or a movie about history (like Herzog) is to engage in a form of activity in which the force of conviction necessary to maintain clarity of vision leads one to the brink of insanity. (2)

Certainly, Stone is not alone in articulating this view. Cecile Cazort Zorach makes an identical comparison when noting that Aguirre “manipulates various historical allusions to create a portrait of intense megalomania, most immediately in the film’s protagonist but obliquely, too, in its implicit declaration about the obsessiveness of filmmaking as an artistic undertaking.” (3) Roger Ebert, upon first reviewing the film in 1977, described it as “an obsessive film, about obsession” (4) and Gideon Bachman sums up this mirroring inclination perfectly: “In describing the characters he prefers to depict, I find myself using terms that would also apply to Werner Herzog himself.” (5)

While these arguments and concerns are certainly valid, a great deal of the focus on self-reflexive artistry has drawn (perhaps too much) attention away from other connections and sources of influence. Similarly, the repeated critical scrutiny of Herzog’s unfaithfulness to his 16th century real-life sources has inspired a great deal of debate surrounding Aguirre’s place in post-colonial cinematic discourse. While this is not the place in which to investigate the different views on the topic, it is worth pointing out that rooting Aguirre in such a discursive context – while certainly legitimate – tends to prevent an analysis of what Spanish colonialism in the sixteenth century might mean metaphorically to a German filmmaker in the second half of the twentieth. It is this engagement with German culture and history, together with how these elements are manifested in Aguirre, which will serve as the focus of my investigation of the film. Examining Germany’s historical and cultural attraction and utilization of the discourse of mythology and mythmaking, this paper aims to investigate the manner in which Aguirre employs iconic notions of the jungle and mountain in order to both embrace and subvert Germany’s ongoing fascination with myth and the environment.

I

In 1940, as World War Two raged around him, Thomas Mann drew a distinction between the cultural and artistic production of Germany and that of other European nations. Whereas, for instance, the creation of British and French artworks were predominantly the result of, and responses to, social and political forces, Germans sought inspiration in the “pure humanity of the mythical age”, an age according to George S. Williamson that was “based in nature itself rather than the circumstances of any historical era.” (6) For Mann, the crucial difference between French and German literature was “that between the social instinct of the French work and the mythical, primitive, poetic spirit of the German.” (7) While it should be stressed that Mann’s convictions reflect less an ‘official’ empirical fact – his was “a polemical position”, as Williamson points, which “ignored a long tradition of German social novels…as well as the degree to which the discourse on myth had begun to influence non-German literature and scholarship” (8) – Mann’s statement can nevertheless be placed within the broader Germanic context of an undeniably strong Romantic longing (Sehnsucht). Sehnsucht, as defined by Emmanuel Kant, reflected the “empty wish to overcome the time between the desire and acquisition of the desired object.” (9) Within the politico-ideological context of a post-French Revolution Europe – and further exacerbated by the industrialisation and urbanisation of the 19th century – this desire was felt retroactively through “sentiments of nostalgia, longing, or exile…as writers sensed the profound distance that divided them from the world of their childhood and, by extension, from the seemingly unified and tradition-bound societies of the distant past.” (10) In Germany, it was a harkening back to myth that particularly crystallised this nostalgia. As Williamson points out, mythology provided a useful double function that allowed both a reflection on the past – “a means of expressing just what had been lost in the transition to modernity” – while simultaneously providing “a means for imagining the eventual reintegration of aesthetic, religious, and public life in some future society.” (11) This longing informed many pivotal artists of the 18th and 19th centuries, including the likes of Ludwig van Beethoven, the Brothers Grimm, Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner. While there is not space here to chart the individual influence and by-products of myth on each of these artists and thinkers, one finds it perhaps most grandiosely carried out by Wagner, who drew upon a conglomeration of Norwegian, Icelandic, wider Scandinavian and of course German mythologies in the conception of his monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen opera cycle. (12)

It comes as no great original insight that the twentieth century’s equivalent of this German recourse to myth is devastatingly synonymous with Nazism. While “mythological thought,” as Williamson points out, “did not create National Socialism or anti-Semitism,” it nevertheless, “in its Wagnerian or völkisch guise…offered a way of thinking about art, religion, and the nation that was particularly suited to the political fantasies of Hitler and the racist policies of the Nazi state” (13):

The premise that all art and religion should be ‘national’, the affirmation (particularly strong in Wagner) of strength, honour, and decisiveness as the most important qualities of a hero, and a close link between religion, aesthetics, and race or ‘blood’. When deployed in combination with older forms of Christian anti-Semitism, appeals to defend the German Fatherland, and the scientific language of contemporary eugenics, these images served to reinforce the notion of a ‘racial community’ and to promote acquiescence and even participation in the murderous plans of the Nazi elites.” (14)

This mythological propagation was encouraged in an effort to mobilise a nationalist cult through the arts. The most ambitious of these attempts was the Thing-Spiele, “massive dramas designed for thousands of participants and spectators that were meant to evoke the tribal gatherings of pagan Germany. A typical production portrayed an allegorical ‘Germany’ oppressed by its enemies before achieving final victory.” (15)

As World War II dragged to a close and defeat grew more and more imminent, such myth-inspired ardour only intensified. Hitler’s own “mythologizing tendencies became increasingly dominant. Germany, embattled on all sides, was stylised into the image of the solitary hero. Idealised contempt for life and glorification of death by violence had long been deeply impressed upon the German mentality. Now that spirit was once again invoked.” (16) For Hitler, this was a defeat modelled on the Götterdamerung (the Nordic ‘Twilight of the Gods’ from which the last opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle takes its name), and he issued an order (the “Nero Command”) that absolutely all resources that might aid the enemy be destroyed, with “no consideration for the [German] population” to be taken. (17) “From total defeat”, Hitler claimed, “springs the seed of the new” (18) and just as Brunnhilde – in the Niebelungenlied – “dies the redeemer’s death” by throwing herself upon her lover’s funeral pier, triggering a flooding of the world that would clear “the ground for the creation of a new humanity,” (19) so too for Hitler would total annihilation became the ultimate salvation. These plans, entrusted to Albert Speer and fortunately never carried out, nevertheless illustrate in devastating detail the manner by which Hitler was able and willing to mythologize the death and utter destruction of an entire nation.

II

As Williamson stresses, the fall of Nazism did not put an end to the German preoccupation with mythological thought. (20) Indeed, a strong case can be made that Werner Herzog, perhaps more than any other German filmmaker of the latter half of the 20th century – certainly within Die Neue Welle of the 70s and early 80s – embodies the modern-day equivalent of this mythical sehnsucht. “His films”, argues Ingo Petzke, “are archetypically German in their quest for the Holy Grail or rather the Blue Flower of Romanticism, to name the nearest German equivalent”. According to Petzke – who in his writing renders Herzog as something of a heroic mythical figure himself – “no aim is weird enough, no country too distant.” (21) Herzog strives to accomplish the gargantuan, the impossible, and frequently achieves it – perhaps most famously when he defied all expectations and moved a steamboat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo (1982). However, in addition to courting myth in his filmmaking, his subject matter is frequently pre-occupied with creating new myths. This inclination is certainly present in Where the Green Ants Dream (1984) – where Herzog scripts a fictitious mythical belief for the Australian aborigines – as well as his early ‘documentary’ Fata Morgana (1970), set in the Sahara but drawing upon ancient Greek and Mayan mythology, which is imparted via a voiceover narrating “a parable of Paradise become Hell-on-earth.” (22)

On the surface, Aguirre seems to lack the flavour of this mythical influence (unless one considers Herzog’s free embellishment and lack of fidelity to his historical source a form of myth making). The film’s setting however – the Peruvian jungle and an opening scene set among the Andes mountain range – certainly exploits two topographical forms that possess a deep significance to German culture and mythology. It almost goes without saying that the articulation of nostalgia provided by myth is very much rooted in the notion of a ‘return’ to the natural environment and to an ‘untarnished’ landscape. In lieu with romanticism, nature is perceived as offering the utopian promise of a “return to simpler, more primitive living.” (23) Reliving myth is thus synonymous with escaping from the urban trappings of civilization into the sort of locations in which these myths might have originally played out. In terms of setting, the mountain (Berg) and forest (Wald) serve as perhaps the two most frequent sites of mythological interest and reflection. One should not take it as complete coincidence that mountain peeks, considered by the romantics to be a dependably sublime site upon which to meet one’s Maker, (24) also served as the terrain on which Valhalla – home of the Norse Gods – rested. In addition to being a god’s abode, Valhalla was considered the site to which dead heroes would be carried after they fell bravely in battle. Here, “the heroes enjoyed games of combat and enough food and drink to last an eternity.” (25)

Of similar significance to the Berg was the German Wald. If a fixation with the former terrain led, within the context of filmmaking, to the Mountain Film – an exceedingly popular German film genre of the 1920s and 30s – the latter topography has had a similar impact on numerous filmmakers. This is evident in Edgar Reitz’s centennial celebration of German film history, Die Nacht der Regisseure (‘The Night of the Directors’, 1995), (26) wherein he includes a section specifically dedicated to ‘Die Regisseure und der deutsche Wald’ (‘The Directors and the German Forest’). Interviewing the then-living pantheon of German filmmakers and performers – Volker Schlöndorff, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Alexander Kluge, Leni Riefenstahl, Hannah Schygulla and, of course, Herzog, amongst others – many described the numerous and deep connections they feel towards and about the forest, projecting onto the terrain their own envisaged scenarios and moods.

These archetypical environments are clearly central to the discourse on myth and still possessed – if Die Nacht der Regisseure is anything to go on – of a great deal of modern-day reverence. But in what manner do these environments function within Aguirre, the Wrath of God? What is both fascinating and potentially confounding in the film is how Herzog appears to want it both ways. For throughout Aguirre, one finds examples of a simultaneous attraction towards and disavowal of the potentially ‘mythical’ elements in nature. Herzog’s camera and overall aesthetic appears both in awe of the romantic notion of the sublime – “those rare places on earth where one had more chance than elsewhere to glimpse the face of God” (27) – while being simultaneously wary of its tarnished and physically cruel reality – its “obscenity”, to borrow a particularly characteristic Herzogian term on the subject. (28)

Central to maintaining this ambivalent relationship between myth and reality is Herzog’s insistence on location shooting. When Thomas Elsaesser writes about how the director’s “fiction serves to dramatise a peculiarly physical notion of film-making,” (29) this “physical notion” is made possible by the hardships present in location shooting. Furthermore, it is precisely this element that relativises the mythical and hallucinatory. For while Aguirre’s images are frequently spellbinding, they are interspersed and connected with scenes of hardship and a gritty, occasionally even self-reflexive, documentative aesthetic. For instance, following a highly aestheticised depiction of a descent from atop the Andes at the start of the film, the viewer is exposed to frantic scenes filmed handheld, in which tree branches lash out at the conquistadors and rain and mud pummels not only the men, but also the camera – to the degree that one can frequently see mud or water stains on the camera lens, a ‘dispeller of illusion’ and technical fault considered by conventional filmmaking practice to be one of cinema’s cardinal sins.

Similarly, tranquil and mystifying images of the jungle – an abandoned horse peering from behind a tree, a stranded ship perched atop looming forest branches, slow pans along the water past the lush jungle – share room with a panicky journey down rough rapids – the camera placed directly on the boat in order to heighten the situation’s immediacy and sense of documentary authenticity – and moments of unforeseen environmental sabotage, such as when the water level rises and washes away the conquistadors’ rafts. In short, nature at its most demystifying and ruthless.

To this end, the viewer is constantly being shuffled between two representational extremes: images that play to an idealised myth-inducing (and induced) view of nature and an immediate documentary-like realism that literally demystifies this nature and treats it as ruthless danger – a danger affecting not only the onscreen characters but also the very attempt to make the film. (30)

But what aim is served by this dual representation? Here I would argue that Herzog’s filmmaking strategy runs beyond the lines of a simple reflection on nature’s ‘true face’ or an illustration of the different ways in which human beings could and should view the natural world. One should not ignore Aguirre’s place in 20th century German history. Die Neue Welle, as John E. Davidson points out, belonged to a generation for whom history and tradition, through its association with Nazism, had becomes irrevocably tainted. “Because of Germany’s past”, argues Davidson, “the filmmakers’ language had been violated, their subconscious colonized, their ability to fully develop an identity impaired, and their traditions fragmented.” (31) In Herzog’s cinema, I would argue that the symptoms of these psychological and cultural injuries manifest in a complex, seemingly contradictory, manner. For if Herzog is attracted to the stylised elements of myth and mythmaking, he also quite clearly observes the dangers inherent in such mythologizing – a mythologizing that played no small part in driving a nation to the brink of self-destruction and bolstering the alibi by which countless atrocities could be ideologically motivated. It is important to link Aguirre to this context for, as Elsaesser writes, “despite their seemingly existential emphasis, their apolitical aspects, these films become quite precisely locatable in the social and cultural history of Germany, as a country which lived its politics in the imagination and eventually realised some its deepest fantasies (of redemption and heroism) in the technocratic nightmares of Nazism and the Final Solution.” (32)

In this sense, the environment of the Peruvian jungle becomes a means of critiquing not just Western colonialism, but also the ideological mythmaking culture of Germany’s socio-political past. As Penelope Gilliat so eloquently sums up, the Peruvian jungle serves as “Herzog’s vividly imagined country of Fascist conceits.” (33) To this end, Herzog draws attention to both the seduction of a mythologized natural landscape, while simultaneously revealing the inherent risks involved in trying to render that myth real.

Dwelling upon this claim in more detail, consider the opening moments of Aguirre, which immediately establish the intense conflict between an idealisation of the mythical and a critique of the same. Prior to the film proper, Herzog inserts a brief written prologue, informing us how:

The Indians invented the legend of El Dorado, a land of gold, located in the swamps of the Amazonian headwaters. A large expedition of Spanish adventurers, led by Gonzalo Pizarro set off from the Peruvian highlands in late 1560. The only document to survive from this lost expedition is the diary of the monk Caspar de Carvagal.

While on first glance this could be read as a simple piece of exposition in order to historically situate the viewer at the beginning of the film, the prologue serves the additional function of providing a fatalistic foreshadowing. If the Indians invented the legend of El Dorado, then we as the audience know that any attempts to find it are doomed to failure. This statement also serves a third function, for a dispelling of the Eldorado myth anticipates the challenge posed to mythical recourse throughout much of the rest of the film. However, in a dialectical manoeuvre typical of the film, this initial forswearing of the mythical is directly proceeded by an image that all but reaffirms it. The text gives way to an extreme wide-shot depicting the side of a steep mountain – a section of the Andes range – covered in thick mist. As the camera tilts and zooms however, tiny figures can be seen against the landscape, descending a precarious path. In its entrancing sway, the music – Lacrimé, a hypnotic choral piece by Popol Vuh – combined with the tiny descending figures, draws strong connotations to a form of spiritual pilgrimage. In light of the aforementioned discussion around mountainous peaks and their godly significance, this scene connotes a clearly spiritual connection: the descending figures as representatives of a godly presence. This element of religiosity is further reinforced by the monk Carvagal’s voiceover, describing his reading of the mass before the mountainous descent. Furthermore, his awe-filled remark upon “looking down at the legendary jungle” typifies the mythical ambience imbued throughout the opening.

Herzog’s choice of frame focuses squarely on this elongated site of idealisation, his camera swooning over the misty mystical landscape. The human figures, like ants scurrying across a tree branch, are not necessarily even the focus here. What one finds instead is a reversal of the traditional relationship between characters that wield representational dominance over the landscape. Whereas, in almost all films, the environment is relegated to the secondary status of ‘setting’ – the backdrop for human endeavour – here the humans appear as insignificant spots, just one more detail among many, atop the image under inspection.

To Herzog, the landscape is “never a backdrop, like in commercials…it’s in the soul of men.” (34) This line – the notion that nature is inside of us, its external presence articulating our innermost feelings – suggests a conception of the relationship between human beings and the environment steeped in romantic sentiment. Although Herzog insists that he feels closer to the Middle Ages and has actively disavowed any 19th century artistic affinities, (35) this has not prevented some writers from regarding him as “the profoundest and most authentic heir of the Romantic tradition at work today.” (36)

On first sight, there appears to be some truth to this. Herzog’s depiction of the natural environment often evokes a sense of the sublime, if we bear in mind that the romantic conception of the sublime was “far from being a pleasurable experience.” (37) Using the example of William Wordsworth and his poem The Prelude, William Cronon suggests that “surrounded by crags and waterfalls, the poet felt himself literally to be in the presence of the divine – and experienced an emotion remarkably close to terror.” (38) All fine and well. But where Herzog parts company with this notion is his frequent move towards a depiction of nature that emphasizes the disconcertingly mundane but outright hostility in its relationship towards human beings and human endeavour.

Allowing documentary reality to invade and dispel any idealistic myths enacts this severing of ties with the romantic conception of the natural environment. Indeed, despite the abundance of the ‘mythical’ in Aguirre’s opening, Herzog gradually disrobes the scene of its illusory aspects. This is first apparent in a sudden cut from the descending pilgrims to a closer shot of one of their wooden cages as it plummets down the mountain’s edge, a jarring moment that seems to work in ironic counterpoint with the soundtrack’s mystical sentiment. From this image the film transitions to closer shots of the travellers as they make their descent, the camera has “already become a part of the expedition.” (39) This is where it will remain for the duration of the sequence and it is here that Herzog first begins dissecting the mythology of the hero/explorer narrative, for while the men represent a notion of this hero archetype – most are dressed as ‘knights in shining armour’ – their attire seems at odds with the environment they find themselves in, ill-suited to the terrain they are attempting to traverse. These are not the replicas of Lohengrin, moving at ease atop the heavenly peaks, but hopelessly encumbered soldiers ill-equipped to face the surrounding environment. Any romantic or nostalgic signification is directly dispelled by the clunkiness and inconvenience of their mode of transport. Indeed, when the fearsome title – ‘Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes’ (Aguirre, the Wrath of God) is superimposed over the onscreen action, it is not accompanied by a trembling, sublime landscape or a hero in shining armour, but contrasts instead with one of the hand-carried carriages as it gets haltingly transported down the path.

The overall impression is an awkward one, with the camera itself – positioned practically in the middle of their path – providing an additional level of obstruction through its close proximity to the colonisers, forcing them to inch around its inconvenient presence. This contrast is further emphasised by Herzog’s decision to shoot the opening and almost all of the proceeding film handheld. Propagated by the cinema verite and Italian Neo-Realist schools as a signifier of ‘realism’, this handheld approach – together with the numerous other aforementioned techniques – allows for an almost total demythologising of Aguirre’s subject.

III

However, if in the opening scene the struggle to represent the landscape appears to shift drastically between idealistic and realistic poles of representation, it can be argued that Herzog uproots the basic assumption upon which this binary rests. For the notion that the landscape can be represented ultimately assumes a relationship in which humans dominate and are in a position from which the act of representation can be carried out and controlled. Aguirre is certainly one of the few films, and Herzog one of the few directors, where human beings’ supremacy over their surrounding environment is not necessarily a given. Returning to an earlier discussion of the opening image, where the size proportions between landscape and human figure quite accurately reflects the influence of one upon the other, this inversion is clearly apparent. In light of Herzog’s aforementioned comment that nature “is in the soul of men” (director’s commentary), it is curious that he repeatedly foregrounds nature in a manner that does not reflect the human ‘soul’ so much as demonstrate nature’s ability to take charge of it. Apart from the Conradian manner in which the jungle appears to overwhelm the human psyche and drive the characters to madness, this control is also exercised in a fundamentally dramaturgical sense. For as Petzke quite clearly points out, “it is the topography of the landscape that dictates the action, not the actors. They are, indeed, re-actors to their surroundings.” (40)

Unlike the linear progress one would assume the boat-journey format to take – Apocalypse Now (1979) serves as a good example of this convention – Aguirre appears, often quite literally, to adopt a circular pattern. One initially gets a sense of this movement when the conquistadors begin travelling downstream by raft. While the direction of their course should appear obvious by virtue of their journeying down the river’s path, Herzog and his editor, Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus, tend to favour shots in which the raft appears to rotate on the spot, seaming to move in circles rather than floating downstream. Indeed, for much of the latter half of the film, the raft does not seem to move at all – “the river is sluggish and we’re slowly coming to a halt” narrates Carvagal, and in his final diary entry makes this circular motion explicit: “I can no longer write. We are drifting in circles”.

This circular pattern is in keeping with a space dominated by nature, wherein a cyclical orientation – the recurrence of the seasons, life coming to an end only to be consumed by new life, etc. – dominates. That said, the effect this has on the conquistadors is not to engender any form of inclusion within nature, but rather to emphasise the manner by which they have been distinctly marginalised and have consequentially lost all bearing and sense of progress. As Herzog himself explains, “we lose sense of direction. In the beginning of the film you have a very clear sense in which way they are moving…Later on, you lose that sense and at the end they come to a standstill or just move around in circles.” (41) In Aguirre, one lacks even the most basic means by which to mark the conquistador’s progress. Throughout the film one is granted absolutely no sense of geographical orientation. This ties in closely with a sense of space and time that appears to exist outside of the conquistadors’ control. Scene and shot transitions are frequently abrupt, such as when a single cut transforms the river from a state of placidity to frantic turbulence. Temporality, similarly, appears anything but stable, with vast stretches of time often omitted from one edit to the other, while other seemingly inconsequential moments are stretched beyond ordinary expectation, such as when Herzog makes us gaze into the turbulent abyss of water rapids for a full fifty seconds.

This emphasises a scenario in which human beings have lost the ability to control and propel events. Time, so carefully organised and structured in modern civilisation, here seems to function by and respond exclusively to its own mysterious logic. As Waller describes it, “time progresses less like a clock or calendar than like the river – cascading or circular or deathly still.” (42) Some unknown force dictates the flow of time, and the human characters are helpless to its passing. In a reversal of the usual character/setting dynamic, it is the human beings who are frequently rendered motionless, forced to listen to a lively landscape and stolidly endure the assault of the jungle’s indigenous human inhabitants.

What Herzog repeatedly achieves in all of these examples is the banishment of any notions pertaining to the sublime romantic joining between man and the natural environment. Nature does not welcome, embrace or even emotionally overwhelm in the romantic sense. It is instead an actively hostile and frequently murderous force.

Similarly, the jungle resists the human tendency to subvert and make it the controlled backdrop for a mythologized glorification of the individual. This is epitomised in a scene where Aguirre seems to directly challenge nature itself:

If I, Aguirre, want the birds to drop dead from the trees, the birds will drop dead from the trees. I am the Wrath of God! The earth I walk upon sees me and quakes!

Rather than cut immediately after Aguirre concludes his speech, Herzog holds the camera on him in close-up as Aguirre stares defiantly back at the audience. Interestingly, rather than punctuating his speech with additional intimidation and menace, this prolonged close-up undermines and casts doubt on Aguirre’s declaration, an uncertainty widened in no small degree by the fact that the birds he has threatened to silence continue to tweet unperturbed.

The association of this scene to a deluded fascism has not gone unnoticed. “Unlike Hitler” however, “whose words echo[ed] out onto a world that unmistakably reflect[ed] the triumph of his will” (at least for a time), the environment and Aguirre’s handful of exhausted and battered followers bear his remarks either ineffectually or in a state of fear. (43) This, Herzog seems to argue, is the depressingly inevitable result of all deluded and self-mythologising empires; the aforementioned “country of fascist conceits.”

This comparison is even more strongly felt if we compare the opening of the film in relation to its close. Consider again Aguirre’s opening image, which has clear parallels to German fascism via its resemblance to the opening of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). As the mist parts to reveal the descending pilgrim figures, so Riefenstahl’s film, a documentary of the 1934 Nazi Nuremberg rally, opens with Hitler descending god-like from the clouds as his plane lands in Nuremburg – set to the mysterious and majestic prelude of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. As Stone argues, “the parallels between Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes and the Nazi propaganda classic Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl, are not entirely coincidental.” (44) If Aguirre’s opening represents the ironic, quasi-triumphant inauguration of fascist and foreign-invasive maneuvers, the final scenes point to where these ambitions lead. As the end of Aguirre’s deluded quest becomes apparent, Carvagal writes in one of his final diary entries, “Aguirre is leading us into destruction. I almost feel he does it deliberately”. While Hitler was mercifully prevented from doing so, by leaving Aguirre as the sole survivor of his expedition – surrounded by the strewn bodies of his men and daughter – Herzog envisages an alternate scenario in which a metaphorical Deutschland has been brought to a state of complete collapse, utterly defeated and eradicated. And in one final and unmistakable historical analogy to Hitler and the Nazi’s zealous enthusiasm for racial purity, his daughter lying dead in his arms, Aguirre’s deluded voice can be heard speaking for the first time in ironically authoritative voiceover, yearning for an incestuously conceived race of Übermenschen:

I, the wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the earth has ever seen. Together, we shall rule this entire continent. We will endure.

Against the popular conception of so many of Herzog’s protagonists as outsiders, (45) when placed within the context of a critique of fascist authoritarianism, Aguirre seems to reflect the very centre of an entire dysfunctional society; a self-fashioned empire now in ruins.

As the above analysis has proven, this dysfunction manifests itself, at least partially, through the exploitation of a society’s susceptibility to myth. As a filmmaker, Herzog himself is not exempt from frequently engaging in similarly grandiose (self)mythologising, as a perusal of his body of work – not to mention Burden of Dreams (1982), Les Blank’s invaluable documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo – proves. However, in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, he directly engages and examines the problematic aspects that can arise when the trappings of myth are exploited to cover up a society’s drift from reason into madness. This is achieved not by simply presenting the titular figure as a self-deluded, self-mythologising tyrant – a thinly veiled parallel to the Führer – but concurrently through a depiction of the surrounding environment that provides us with both an idealised gaze and a more realistic stare that counters, critiques and dissects the unempirical ideological assumptions of the former. In this sense, although the film can, and frequently has, been viewed as a critique of Spain’s avaricious colonial campaign into South America, it reads just as well when re-contextualised as a critique of Herzog’s own post-war Germany and its historical past.

Endnotes

  1. Cynthia L. Stone. “Aguirre Goes To the Movies: Twentieth Century Visions of Colonial-Era ‘Relaciones’”. Chasqui, vol. 34, no 2. 2005. 24-35 p. 26
  2. Stone, ‘Aguirre Goes to the Movies’, p. 32
  3. Cecile Cazort Zorach. “Geographical Exploration as Metaphor in Recent German Narrative”. The German Quarterly, vol. 59, no 4. 1986. 611-627 p. 620
  4. Roger Ebert. “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”. 9 February 1977. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=%2F19770209%2FREVIEWS%2F243790834%2F1023&AID1=%2F19770209%2FREVIEWS%2F243790834%2F1023&AID2=%2F19990404%2FREVIEWS08%2F904040301%2F1023 [accessed 03 July 2012]
  5. Gideon Bachman. “The Man On the Volcano: a Portrait of Werner Herzog”. Film Quarterly, vol. 31, no 1. 1977. 2-10 p. 2
  6. George S. Williamson. The Longing For Myth in Germany: Religion and Aesthetic Culture From Romanticism to Nietzsche (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 1. Own emphasis
  7. Mann in Williamson. The Longing For Myth in Germany. p. 1
  8. Williamson. The Longing For Myth in Germany. p. 290
  9. Kant in Bernard Yack. The Longing For Total Revolution: Philosophic Sources of Social Discontent from Rousseau to Marx (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 5
  10. Williamson. The Longing For Myth in Germany. p. 2-3
  11. Williamson. The Longing For Myth in Germany. p. 3
  12. Opera: Composers, Works, Performers, ed. by A. Batta and S. Neef (Köln: Könemann, 2000). p. 794
  13. Williamson. The Longing For Myth in Germany. p. 293
  14. ibid.
  15. Williamson. The Longing For Myth in Germany. p. 292
  16. Joachim C. Fest. Hitler. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974), p. 731
  17. Hitler in Fest. Hitler. p. 731
  18. Hitler in Fest. Hitler. p. 725
  19. Williamson. The Longing For Myth in Germany. p. 207
  20. Williamson. The Longing For Myth in Germany. p. 293
  21. Ingo Petzke. “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”. 2002. http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/01/19/aguirre.html [accessed 02 November 2010]
  22. Vernon Young. “Much Madness: Werner Herzog and Contemporary German Cinema”. The Hudson Review, vol. 30, no 3. 1977. 409-414 p. 411
  23. William Cronon. “The Trouble With Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”, in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. Edited by William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton). p. 76
  24. Cronon. “The Trouble With Wilderness”. p. 73
  25. Williamson. The Longing For Myth in Germany. p. 108
  26. Die Nacht der Regisseure. Dir. Edgar Reitz. BFI. 1995. This documentary was part of a much larger initiative to celebrate one hundred years of cinema by commissioning different countries to produce documentaries that celebrated or took stock of their respective national cinemas. In addition to Die Nacht der Regisseure, other documentaries were produced by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Martin Scorsese, Sam Neill, Stephen Frears and Nagisa Oshima, and spanned Europe, the United States, Asia and Australasia. Africa and the Middle East are glaringly unrepresented.
  27. Cronon. “The Trouble With Wilderness”. p. 73
  28. Burden of Dreams. Dir. Les Blank. Flower Films. 1982.
  29. Thomas Elsaesser. New German Cinema: A History. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1989), p. 166
  30. In the director’s commentary to the Umbrella Entertainment version of the DVD, Herzog recounts how the flash flood was no fabrication; the cast and crew did indeed lose their rafts and had to delay shooting while more were constructed.
  31. John E Davidson. “As Others Put Plays Upon the Stage: Aguirre, Neocolonialism, and the New German Cinema”. New German Critique, vol. 60. 1993. 101-130. p. 113
  32. Elsaesser. New German Cinema. p. 223
  33. Gilliat in Davidson. “As Others Put Plays Upon the Stage”. p. 119
  34. Director’s commentary.
  35. Bachmann. “The Man On the Volcano”. p. 4
  36. Peuker in Davidson. “As Others Put Plays Upon the Stage”. p. 116
  37. Cronon. “The Trouble With Wilderness”. p. 73
  38. Cronon. “The Trouble With Wilderness”. p. 74
  39. Gregory, A. Waller “‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’: History, Theatre, and the Camera”. South Atlantic Review. vol. 46, no 2. 55-69. p. 64
  40. Petzke. “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”. ¶9
  41. Director’s commentary.
  42. Waller. “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”. p. 59
  43. Waller. “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”. p. 62
  44. Stone, ‘Aguirre Goes to the Movies’, p. 30
  45. See: Elsaesser. New German Cinema. p. 218; and, Robert C. Reimer, Reinhard Zachau and Margit M. Sinka. German Culture Through Film: an Introduction to German Cinema (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2005), p. 113

About The Author

Jacques de Villiers is a film editor, writer, music-maker, teacher at the University of Cape Town and very occasional director, based in Cape Town, South Africa. He is currently busy with a study of the films of Harmony Korine and how one might view cinemas of the so-called ‘First World’ from a postcolonial perspective.