Since its 1974 release Aguirre: The Wrath of God has been praised to such an extent that this Werner Herzog conceived film is nowadays considered somewhat of a masterpiece. Film buffs are indeed lavish in their praise. Klaus Kinski in the leading role and cult status was all but assured.
Far be it for me to buck the trend, but this movie never really gets out of first gear. It might be glibly referred to as an ‘epic’ by imdb users many of whom appear to be beguiled by its Amazonian setting, but what about drama? What about suspense? What about them?
It's no exaggeration to observe that the highest moment of drama occurs when a horse falls from the conquistadores’ raft into the murky river. Kinski and his fellow German-speaking Spanish conquistadores just watch the poor animal drift over to the nearby bank. Moments later the beast is standing on the riverbank bemusedly watching Kinski and co. No crocodile attacks, no drowning, no drama.
On a mission to find El Dorado – (not the BBC soap opera, the fabled city of gold) Aguirre and his band of insipid men have rebelled against the expedition leader, Don-somebody-or-other. Not so fast. When I say ‘rebelled’ this was a rebellion devoid of any suspense whatsoever. Aguirre just took over, declared himself boss and that really was that. Nothing happened.
German cinema is not exactly renowned, is it? (Can you name a single classic German movie?) Watching Aguirre: The Wrath of God it’s easy to see why. Don’t they have drama schools in Deutschland? Never have I witnessed such lifeless performances on the big screen. Kinski seems to think he’s playing Richard III – complete with limp and hunch – while heaven only knows what the rest of the cast are doing.
Fast running out of supplies, at the point of starvation and marooned deep in the Amazonian jungle with not a schnitzel in sight, the conquistadores seem supremely indifferent to their plight. However, they are somewhat spooked by the Amazonian Indians - one or two do show a little surprise upon discovering the natives are cannibals, but it’s a revelation which, in the main, does not duly disturb Aguirre and co.
And so, the conquistadores float down river on their raft. The jungle backdrop is awesome and does highlight the insignificance of man and the shallowness of his ambition. Aguirre and his men are driven on – if that’s the right word – by a lust for gold, a futile quest. No complaints then about the film’s philosophical message.
It's just the complete lack of action that jars – rather a handicap for a movie which sits in the action genre. Characters don’t develop in any meaningful way. Kinski starts out blonde and blue-eyed and ends up blonde and blue-eyed. Action, when it does occur, happens off stage. For example, when a group of conquistadores are slaughtered on their raft by Indians in what would have been a highly dramatic event, we see only the aftermath i.e. the dead bodies.
And so it drags on and on. This film is perhaps best summed up by a segment of the sparse and always stilted dialogue:
‘What’s up with him?’ asks one of the actors (whose name and role in the film escapes me) upon seeing the stiff body of a conquistador lying motionless on the raft one fine morn.
‘He’s dead,’ observes another chap.
For some reason I kept expecting to see John Cleese or Michael Palin pop up at any moment. No such luck. Not sure about the wrath of God, but after sitting through this pedestrian movie for 95 minutes I wasn’t exactly feeling too well disposed towards Herzog’s film either. Don't believe the hype.