April 20, 2009

Justify My Netflix: Aguirre, the Wrath of God

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Today's movie: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix)

Why I added it to my queue: Because later this year I plan on finally watching the 1999 documentary My Best Fiend, concerning the notoriously rocky relationship between German "New Wave" director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski, and thought it'd be good to first see the half-dozen films the two actually made together in the '70s and '80s. Because Aguirre is considered by many to be the best of them, a countercultural classic that highly influenced the American New Wave directors working in the same time period (and in fact is supposedly the main inspiration behind the look and feel of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, made just two years after Aguirre's 1977 American release). Because it's a story I find hard to pass up, a historical drama about a Spanish conquistador in the 1560s who goes completely insane, while on an exploratory mission in South America to find the fabled city of El Dorado, and the effect this has on the hundred people traveling with him in the middle of the jungle. Because, as I'm often mentioning here, nearly the entire ouevre of Werner Herzog is now digitized at Netflix into streaming "instant movie" format, making it extremely convenient to watch another one whenever the mood strikes.

The reality: Oh, so much better than I was expecting. In fact, now that I've started exploring the German New Wave cinema of the '70s and '80s for the first time, I really wonder now how it is that this entire movement has gotten saddled with the unfortunate bauhaus minimalist "Sprockets" reputation that it has, in that both this and the other New Wave project I'm in the middle of right now (Rainer Fassbinder's mini-series Berlin Alexanderplatz) both turn out to be lush, gorgeously filmed historical dramas, projects that foretell the rise of expensive Hollywood location cinematography as much as they do the rise of the "indie scene" in American film. But at the same time, this does definitely reflect the countercultural roots of what was going on around Herzog at the time; because much like the best of '70s cinema, Aguirre not only looks great but is also a dense, challenging meditation on insanity and group dynamics, and how our definition of "civilized society" depends greatly on the complex relationship between these two subjects. Plus, I have to admit that Klaus Kinski is a true madman here, and that it's worth reading up on this film's behind-the-scenes drama over at Wikipedia to understand that the looks of true horror from the other actors towards him were actually real; and also, now that I've seen it, it's also become much clearer to me how Coppola could be the only middling filmmaker he's turned out to be but still the creator of the sublime Apocalypse Now, in that he really did rip off the majority of that movie's look and feel directly from this film in question (which when combined with the script's rip-off of Joseph Conrad's public-domain Heart of Darkness, makes it no wonder that the movie came out as good as it did).

If I had watched it when it first came out: I would've fantasized about Kinski and Norman Mailer in a no-holds-barred wrestling cage match. "Two violently insane countercultural intellectuals enter! Only one violently insane countercultural intellectual leaves!"

Strangest piece of trivia: Although there's much controversy over what really happened, most agree that Kinski had a gun with him on location, and that he once shot off the finger of an extra who was making too much noise; it's also rumored that Herzog himself pulled a gun on Kinski when he threatened to quit the film, although Herzog has repeatedly denied this over the years in interviews.

Worth your time? Absolutely.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:24 PM, April 20, 2009. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |