Werner Herzog was barely 30 when he made his defining work. Aguirre, Wrath of God is not just a great movie but an essential one. Herzog’s third feature—released in 1973 and revived at Film Forum in a beautiful new print—is both a landmark film and a magnificent social metaphor.
Elaborating on the story of the mutinous conquistador Lope de Aguirre (c.1510–61), Herzog mythologized history even as he dramatized his own working methods. Aguirre’s quest for a nonexistent “golden city” in the heart of the Amazon rain forest dovetails with the German filmmaker’s crazy attempt to recapitulate this venture, producing his own low-budget extravaganza in the same jungle location. (Herzog’s El Dorado would have been commercial success; Aguirre, at least initially, achieved only cult status.)
Aguirre gave Klaus Kinski his career role—a half-mad actor playing a full-fledged lunatic—but the filmmaker is the protagonist. The opening sequence—in which the Spanish expedition, complete with sedan chairs, llamas, and Indian slaves, descends out of the Andes through the clouds—is a spectacular show of cinematic might. The exclamation point is a cannon that explodes as it falls into the river. “The spectacle is real; the danger is real,” Herzog later boasted. “It is the real life of the jungle, not the botanic gardens of the studio.”
As with all Herzog, fiction is based in documentary—and vice versa. (The movie, which was shot in sequence, purports to be drawn from a fake historical journal.) Landscape is paramount; animals lend their behavioral presence. The camera is exceptionally mobile even as the action is shot midstream on wooden rafts. Each bend in the river compels the spectator to consider how this movie was actually made. Every shot suggests some sort of ordeal, even if it is only hanging out in the Amazon. The on-set tension was legendary. Herzog and Kinski each famously threatened to kill the other—the Method taken well beyond madness.
Kinski’s performance is curdled glam rock. Although he doesn’t do much more than project paranoid hyper-vigilance, his posturing commands the screen. (Literally: At one point, he pivots to push a horse out of his way.) “I am the great traitor,” Kinski maintains, “I am the Wrath of God,” and his guttural screech even sounds like Hitler. His character contrives fake trials and secret executions, expresses an ultimate desire to “forge history,” or stage it “like the others stage plays,” and leads his men to destruction. Even as Herzog worked out his own demons, he dramatized imperial conquest and its connection to European fascism. That Aguirre appeared during the final stages of the Vietnam War links it to America’s jungle madness as well.
As noted by his longtime champion, former Voice critic Mike Atkinson, Herzog has always been an image-maker others have looted: His vocation is “making movies, not watching them.” Herzog’s river journey anticipated Coppola’s in Apocalypse Now (another example of auteurist psychodrama); Aguirre is the influence Terrence Malick’s over-inflated New World can’t shake. Herzog even attempted his own failed Aguirre remake with Fitzcarraldo, but the earlier film is sui generis. Is Aguirre an exotic thriller, a swashbuckler, a documentary? Manny Farber was reminded of “a bad Raoul Walsh adventure, an episodic paceless film in which you’re wondering ‘will they make it or not.'” (Then again, he cited its “seething passion.”) The meeting between voracious explorers and uncanny aliens approaches science-fiction.
The premise is scary. The tone is absurd. The mood, cued by the lush drone of Popol Vuh’s score, is languorous, even trippy. The drama ends in a fever of denial—someone hallucinates a boat in a tree, someone else dies from a nonexistent arrow. Alone with corpses and monkeys on a raft that drifts in circles as it is circled by the camera, Aguirre is the last man standing—ranting still, amid the illusion of brute existence.
History repeats itself in the jungle. Ending with mass suicide in deepest Guyana, the story of Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple is both the death rattle of ’60s utopianism and—predicated on the desire to found a New Jerusalem in the wilderness—a very American saga.
Stanley Nelson’s documentary (and Tribeca Film Festival prize-winner) touches briefly on Jones’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks childhood and Pentecostal background, leaving the viewer to marvel at the determined faith it must have taken to found a racially integrated church in 1953 Indianapolis. Jones’s first new world was in Mendocino where (imagining the region impervious to nuclear fallout) he moved his congregation and set about creating a collective farm founded on socialist rhetoric, black Baptist energy, and fake faith healing.
Peoples Temple relocated to San Francisco in 1974 and there Jones’s dogma of “apostolic socialism” and ever-ready battalion of progressive shock troops—cheerful oldsters and sincere young ‘uns—soon endeared him to liberal pols. Despite reports that cult members were subject to physical, psychological, and sexual coercion, Jones was appointed head of the SF Housing Authority by Mayor George Moscone (himself assassinated, along with Supervisor Harvey Milk, 10 days after the Jonestown massacre).
The “paranoid messiah of a terrorized but devoted congregation,” in journalist Charles Krause’s pithy formulation, Jones had already built his jungle settlement—and even rehearsed a mass “revolutionary” suicide—before he felt compelled to flee SF ahead of a New West magazine exposé. Once in Guyana, Dad (as Jones was called) provided his followers’ sole reality, haranguing them daily over the Jonestown PA system. In November 1978, the apocalypse arrived in the person of fact-finding congressman Leo Ryan—attacked and murdered as he attempted to return to California. The cyanide-laced Kool-Aid was distributed the next day.
Incredible as this story is, it’s been surprisingly under-leveraged. Back in 1979, the super-8 filmmakers Beth and Scott B made a chilling little item called Letters to Dad, in which a dozen or so East Village bohos read excerpts from the fan mail sent Jones by his followers. Soon after, Powers Boothe played Jones in a suitably lurid made-for-TV movie; some 15 years after the journalistic accounts, Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris’s phantasmagorical Jonestown subsumed the specificity of the massacre in a “dream book” of Mesoamerican history.
Nelson’s Jonestown is an arrangement of facts and recollections; with no voiceover, it’s almost all oral history. (Sociologist John R. Hall is one of the few who provides an overview.) The narrative is assembled from home movies, interviews, and the cult’s own documentation—including the final tapes of Jones exhorting his followers to suicide. There is no way to represent Jonestown’s denouement except with itself. The spectacle of a thousand dead bodies, many children, huddled together in a jungle clearing, trumps the horror of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. (Nearly as awful are the snapshots Nelson shows of Jonestown’s happy—even ecstatic—campers.)
We can only imagine the cult leader’s Aguirre moment—the late afternoon he lorded over a kingdom of corpses. Nelson has fashioned a compelling movie around an unfathomable mystery. To see Jones’s face, eyes hidden behind trademark aviator shades, is to experience the last shock in Psycho. His is the blank stare of living death.