[Note: This is a paper I was “hired” to write (really to help out a comrade), and did so in a few hours, on a crunch. It was later modified by said person, but I rather like it, and I think it’s a different look at my appreciation for Herzog and Aguirre].
Respect. Significance. To be remembered. Everybody wants it. Even artists who originally were content to just make great movies get the serious bug and want respectability. They want to be part of history. Witness Scorsese over the past decade. In reality films that are significant rarely are done with such intent, and are even less likely to be recognized as such at the time.
Aguirre the wrath of god is such an example. Its creator, Werner Herzog, wanted nothing more than to make his third fictional feature film about the title character with his favorite actor Klaus Kinski. But he went through every obstacle imaginable. He had to steal the camera, deal with a hurricane, run barefoot across rocky ground, and deal with the madman that is Kinski himself. Not to mention that most of the audio was savaged and had to be completely redubbed. And when it finally came out, it was trashed in Germany. Every critic hated it. Then, a weird thing happened. In America, the critics were hailing it. It became a proto midnight movie. Like many of Herzog’s own favorite movies “it didn’t change world cinema, but it was well made”. In the broad scheme, it was not important.
Or was it? Near the end of the decade it was made, movie called Apocalypse Now came out. Directed by now known auteur Coppola, it was heavily influenced by Aguirre. In not only themes and mood, but also the fact that there are two “visual quotations” in the film: the first is a ship stuck in a tree, and the second is man struck by a spear (in Aguirre it was an arrow). Apocalypse Now has been called one of the most significant films of all time, and many filmmakers have admitted to it influencing them. But what about influencing the influencers? What does that say about Aguirre? Is it significant?
Perhaps a closer look is warranted. We all know of the work Herzog pushed himself through to make it, but what of the film? First, like few other films (Carpenter’s The Thing) it is a bizarre mix of genres and ideas. Because it was made on a shoestring budget in and shot in Brazil, it feels like third world cinema or a documentary. Other times, due to its minimalist story and vivid imagery, it comes off as expressionist or surrealist. With the historical interpretation of the conquistadors, it matches eyes with soviet history films. Also note, it has a body count high enough for a horror or action film. But because it deals with one man’s struggle, it can be seen as a tropical drama or even western, a man exploring new territory. And finally, because of its visual potency, bare minimum of words and moody soundtrack (courtesy of Popol Vuh), it seems like a new silent film. Maybe this is why Americans loved the film, this country does seem to adore eccentrics. And this is undoubtedly why the German population did not get it.
For that matter ,what was going on in Germany? At the time of Aguirre, it had entered a New Wave of cinema(called by the same name),a movement at least equal to the French Wave. But like most waves, disparate and sometimes even contrasting artist are lumped together. In reality Herzog had little in common with Wim Wenders (in themes) and both were like martians to Rainer Werner Fassbinder(who was probably the purest New German Wave-er, hence his death ended it). And yet all were doing something, they were making films. Real films. German cinema had suffered a massive crater with the Nazi’s and the works of Riefenstahl. Their lineage was broken. For all of the fifties, Germany’s output was mostly poor erotic television plays. The gap between pre and post-war needed to be bridged. And Aguirre was that movie. Even including all of the above about Aguirre, it succeeded where others failed because of Klaus Kinski(a pre WWII German youth). Kinski was a widely admired man, and displayed an aura of someone who was born before the horrors that ravaged Germany. He was one of the few bright spots in the post-war German cinema. But it took Herzog, a man who spent his youth in the aftermath of the Nazis and Riefenstahl, to not only bring out the best in Kinski(and himself) but to make a film that gave relevance to the identity of Germany(which Herzog alternately loved and despised) cinematically. Because of him, filmmakers in America felt there was new cinematic language to be done (The Godfather, Taxi Driver), which influenced a new generation of German filmmakers to do the same(Run Lola Run, Goodbye Lenin). If Coppola and Scorsese are the fathers of modern cinema in Europe, then Herzog is the cantankerous but still active grandfather. And Aguirre helped make him such an influence. Now that's significance.