I recently bought a Herzog/Kinski DVD boxset that includes all five of the films they made together (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo, Woyzeck and Cobra Verde), as well as the excellent documentary Mein Liebster Feind made by Herzog in 1999 after Kinski’s death. It is without doubt the best DVD purchase I’ve ever made, and I urge the reader to go out and buy as soon as is humanly possible.
I had previously only seen one of these films (Aguirre) and it was on the strength of this that I bought the boxset. I still believe Aguirre to be the very best of the films the two made together, and I have watched it several times since I got the DVD. This is unusual for me: I rarely watch a film multiple times in close succession, but there is something about Aguirre that always draws me back in. It could be the score, a haunting composition that sounds like the intro to a Boards of Canada track; it could be the controlled intensity of Kinski’s performance; it could be the cinematography; it could be the sublime strangeness that seems to permeate every scene. There is something about the way Herzog frames those beautiful Peruvian landscapes that makes them both and wonderful and terrible, brightly divine and darkly satanic. The director remarks in the commentary that he wanted the landscape to have an indefinable human quality: I suppose this is the pathetic fallacy. And it is true that in Aguirre (which is often compared to Apocalypse now), the relationship between man and nature is problematical: it is not that savage nature corrupts human rationality, nor is it the case that one man’s insane lust for power and wealth devastates an antediluvian way of life. Rather, the essential strangeness of the Amazonian setting seems to prefigure Aguirre’s descent into madness: how else to react when confronted with this incomprehensible world?
I suppose it is possible that the film could be labelled ‘Orientalist’ (shouldn’t that be ‘Occidentalist’?); but I don’t think this is the case. Of course, there is that underlying theme of confrontation with the nameless Other, but the drama is not one of conflict with the indigenous peoples, but with the indefinable forces that drive us all. Aguirre is not driven to madness by the inhospitable landscape, nor by the threat wielded by the unseen ‘savages’, nor even by his own excessive greed. No, his madness is the necessary outcome of an internal conflict, a conflict that has to do with colonialism, of course, but also with the primal psychodrama that makes us all. Why else does he resolve to marry his daughter and found a ‘pure dynasty’ at the end of the film, if not in service of an essential narcissism, or a desire to purge the sins of the Father? The hallucinatory scene of a boat stranded in the treetops (the adunaton cliché) is a sign that everything is permitted, that all superego prohibitions are null and void. When the symbolic order refuses to configure itself according to one’s desires, the ego cedes to animal desires.
More to come on Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo, and of course, the greatness of Herzog and Kinski.