I. “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”
2. Main Character
2. Main Character
“The epithets used to describe the films of Werner Herzog invariably emphasise the critics’ feeling that they have been impressed by something that goes beyond rational analysis”
This statement by John Sandford seems to sum up the fascinating consequence of the mysterious enigma of Werner Herzog’s films: an irrational aesthetic method, an irrational performance and an irrational effect. Typical terms used in the past to describe Herzog’s work were: “obsessive, fanatic, titanic, apocalyptic, holy, demonic”, but also, more neutrally, terms like “fantastic, irrational, mysterious”. Indeed, when watching his films, they can create a very strange atmosphere. The viewer is often confronted with human megalomania or total human failure which stands in contrast to a mighty, unconquerable nature. Herzog plays with the presentation of these concepts. They are linked, varied, mixed and often set in a somewhat mystical context. At times this mixture of opposing elements are that grotesque that the viewer does not really know whether to laugh or to cry. There is a steady presence of an uncomfortable kind of humour in Herzog’s work. Some of Herzog’s films seem more like a psychedelic experience, than a typical, classically told story, which follows narrative laws like exposition, plot or climax. In these films the emotions seem to be more important than their narrative origin and therefore the story becomes less important than what it carries. This is the Herzog-typical irrational element, which leaves the viewer impressed, but leaves him/her with more questions than answers.
In a lot of Herzog-films this irrational element is manifested in a symbol, in a human being, namely in the main character. The heroes in Herzog’s films are portrayed as supermen and/or supervictims, often both together.
On the one hand they seem to fill in an allegoric, symbolic function, but on the other hand their idiosyncratic uniqueness allows them to appear as real characters, as human beings. Hence, identification with the protagonists appears to be a rather awkward experience. At times they seem to be explanative examples that are scrutinised at from a certain distance, at other times they become an object of emotions and feelings as well. The viewing habits are disrupted, as the possibility and method of identification with the main character often changes throughout the film.
This essay takes a closer look at two protagonists, who can be seen to typify the classical Herzog persona, as described above: De Lope Aguirre and Bruno S. At first glance, these two characters seem to be completely different, yet they have something in common if one looks at them in connection. The essay will first take a look at the two films “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “STROSZEK”. It will then draw on to discuss the problem of identification with the protagonists, placing this into context with Herzog’s aesthetic method and style.
I. “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”
“Aguirre, the Wrath of God” is “a story of power and madness”, where a self-destructive maniac drives himself and his men into death and insanity.
Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century are searching for the legendary El Dorado in the south-American jungle, the famous “land of gold”. Nobleman Aguirre de Lope (Klaus Kinski), obsessed by the idea of the ultimate treachery, declares himself the new leader of the expedition. As they continue their fatal journey rafting on a river, “a collective madness of despair grips them all”. The members of the party die one by one of starvation, or poisoned, Indian arrows, while others are slowly going insane. In the end, Aguirre is the only one left. Alone and mad, on the drifting raft, he dreams about the foundation of a new, pure dynasty and the ruling of the whole of New Spain.
2. Main Character
Aguirre de Lope is a typical kind of a Herzog character: a fanatic megalomaniac, whose mad ambitions are doomed to fail from the very beginning. From the first scene onwards, the viewer knows that the film will not have a happy ending. Even if one misses the inter-title at the beginning, that explains that “the only document to survive from the lost expedition is the diary of the monk Gaspar de Carjaval” (Del Negro), one can quickly figure out that the whole party is doomed from the point on, when Aguirre takes the lead. His proud and celebrating declaration of autonomy,
“We rebel to the death. The House of Habsburg is overthrown. You, Philip the second,
are dethroned. By the power of this declaration you are obliterated.”,
appears to be more ridiculous than effective.
„It is the uselessness of this declaration that comments so dramatically on the colonial project of expansion based on greed and hypocrisy.“
But it is even more than that. Aguirre’s new leadership as well as the election of Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Behrling) as a kind of a puppet-emperor of El Dorado, a land, which has not yet been found, is both tragicomic and ironic. There is nothing to rule at all, and the adventurers try to forget about their hopeless situation by dreaming about the power and richness of their future. While Pizarro and even his delegate Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) have realised long ago that all effort to conquer this jungle is futile, the ambitious Aguirre is possessed by greed, treachery, and megalomania. An execution of a soldier, who planned to desert, is followed by a quiet, but forceful speech, that can express Aguirre’s self-image best:
“I am the great traitor. There can be none greater. When I, Aguirre, want the birds drop dead from the trees then the birds will drop dead from the trees. I am the Wrath of God. The earth I walk upon sees me and quakes. But who follows me and the river will win untold riches.”
David Sorfa sees in this monologue an alignment “with Lucifer and the fallen angels”. Indeed, Aguirre could be viewed in the tradition of Milton’s Satan, rebelling against God and his creation. He is the leading element throughout the story and he wants to prove his strength against nature and his fellow travellers. However, those who follow him, will not win “untold riches”, but instead will take part in his slow, but unstoppable entanglement into the huge green trap, which he wants to domesticate. He is the one who decides, against the orders of Ursúa, to build rafts to follow the river. Very quickly their human helplessness becomes obvious, as a raft is stuck in a rapid turning around in circles for hours and days, with no possibility to escape: a typical Herzogian circle of hopelessness and entrapment. This circle-image is repeated in the very last scene, where Aguirre is staggering around on the raft, accompanied now by dozens of small monkeys – the men are all dead. The camera moves around him in a circle, expressing the vanity of human attempt to conquer this place. Aguirre is lost, entrapped in the scenario of his own madness, but ironically concludes the ultimate dream of his greatness:
“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 the whole of this continent. I am the wrath of god, who else is with me?”
Logically, this part of the story should have remained untold, because there is in fact no-one left to tell the end. Aguirre’s speech forms the voice-over , “as if his voice will only truly be heard, when it cannot possibly have an audience”. This is Aguirre’s most private moment and it is at this point that the strongest identification with his character becomes possible. His being is defined through his fate: to fail and die, due to his megalomania. Throughout the story, before this practically impossible situation, the character could be seen as an allegory for power and madness, a “parable of imperialism”, a symbol for the nullity of all human strive. Now, in the very last scene, we see Aguirre not as a symbol, but as a character, as a human being, defeated by his inner self and still not knowing it. In the circled trap of the jungle, where he is alone with his deepest thoughts and confronted with the fatal results these thoughts have led to, the spectator is enabled to feel empathy and understanding for him for the first time. As all others have died, he, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, still wants to endure. Giving up is impossible. Defeat is a concept that he can neither grasp nor understand. This is, what finally allows him to become more than an allegory, what makes him human.
“STROSZEK” is “the story of a man for whom there is no place in society and who attempts to find freedom and fortune in America”.
Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) is released from prison and warned to stop drinking. He has few skills and fewer expectations: playing his accordion in Berlin’s backyards, he tries to get along. He also tries to help Eva (Eva Mattes), a prostitute, who has trouble with the local street criminals. After they both are harried and beaten up by the thugs who were Eva's pimps, they join Bruno's neighbour, Herr Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), an elderly eccentric, when he leaves Germany to live in Wisconsin with his nephew. In that winter bound, barren prairie, Bruno works as a mechanic while Eva takes on a job as a waitress. They buy a mobile home. Soon Eva is back to whoring again and leaves Bruno. He and Scheitz can not pay the bills anymore, so that their house is removed and sold in an auction. After they rob a barbershop, Scheitz is captured by the police and Bruno escapes with a few cans of beer, a gun and a frozen turkey. His journey takes him to a deserted Indian tourist town, where he eventually kills himself, while sitting in a chair lift.
 Sandford, John: The New German Cinema. (London: 1980); p. 48
 ibid.; p. 48
 Sandford: op. cit.; p. .52
 Sorfa, David: “Interrupted Flows: The River Journey Film.” From: Lost Highways. An Illustrated History of
Road movies. Edited by Jack Sargeant and Stephanie Watson. (Creation Books 1999); p. 215
 Sorfa: “River Journey Film”; p. 213
 Sorfa: “River Journey Film”; p. 214
 Pflaum, Hans Günther; Prinzler, Hans Helmut (Editors): Film in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland
Der neue deutsche Film von den Anfängen bis zur
Gegenwart. Ein Handbuch. (Bonn 1992); p. 26
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- A (1,3)
- Individual Werner Herzog Films Aguirre Wrath STROSZEK Film Klaus Kinski Der Zorn Gottes Peter Behrling Christoph Mauch