The New World Setting And Old World Idiom
In Aguirre, The Wrath of God
Now Henry is unmistakably a Big One.
Funnee; he don't feel so.
He just stuck around.
The German and the Russian films into
Italian and Japanese films turned,
while many were prevented from making it.
— 77 Dream Songs
So John Berryman on growing up in America: he wishes "he could squirm again where Hoot/is just ahead of rustlers," but the foreign films keep intruding on this dream of childhood. Changing nationality—as if to mark the passing of time—they drag him away from Hollywood and from youth.
A lot of people in Berryman's generation must have this kind of memory. Instead of Westerns, they got Akira Kurosawa. This was an unsettling change, harbinger of things to come. Not, however, so unsettling as it might have seemed. The relationship between foreign films and Hollywood often moves both sides towards a shared vocabulary, a shared cinematic world. Well to remember that Kurosawa's samurai film Yojimbo led to a string of Italian Westerns in which Clint Eastwood got his start. After a while Eastwood's director, Serge Leone, won the budget and the stars to make the internationally financed Once Upon a Time in the West, starring Henry Fonda. Once upon a time indeed! Fonda, who starred as Wyatt Earp in John Ford's My Darling Clementine, is the perfect figure to close this particular circle. He now inhabits a genre utterly transformed. Berryman implies that the aesthetic laws of the old Hollywood can't survive such onslaughts. Like youth or innocence, they are irretrievable. To which we might reply: Hollywood conventions are altered more often than destroyed—altered, moreover, by foreign admiration as well as by foreign indifference.
Berryman was writing in the early sixties. Since that time, Italian and Japanese have turned into French and once more into German films. At first sight, the New German Cinema affords one further example of a grand cultural mixup on the international movie scene. Directors like R.W. Fassbinder and Wim Wenders follow a customary pattern by studying Hollywood products (the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, American film noir) before assimilating this influence into presumably avant-garde films. These men borrow Hollywood conventions, then take them to pieces: a much-honored form of filmmaking. On the other hand, while the Fassbinder and Wenders product is often high-quality, we've seen this kind of recycling a little too often.
The third of the younger German directors to get attention from American audiences is Werner Herzog, a less predictable figure. Herzog's sympathies are with the high culture of Eastern Europe rather than a popular tradition like Hollywood's. When he made a vampire film it was based on Murnau's Nosferatu; when he went to the theater for inspiration he chose to film Buchner's Wozzeck. This studied distance from Hollywood conventions and idioms has allowed Herzog an unexpected privilege. His movies are Foreign Films, to be sure, but by this very token he has become one of the few European directors to create a great work about the New World. Aguirre, the Wrath of God—made 1973, premiered in Valparaiso 1980—establishes an original hybrid between New World setting and Old World idiom. It does so by way of that quintessential American theme, the search for El Dorado.
The plot of Aguirre is simple. A sixteenth-century Spanish expedition attempts to conquer the Amazon river basin. The advance party of the expedition is taken over by the power-mad Aguirre, who appoints a puppet Emperor of El Dorado, then leads the Emperor and his men (all hoping for gold) to extinction in the heart of the wilderness. Aguirre is the last survivor. As the film ends, he continues to float down the river on a jerry-built raft. Surrounded by his dead men (and his dead daughter) he plans ever-greater conquests.
The movie is about a megalomaniac, Hitlerian genius—so say the reviews. To be more specific, it is about what such a genius might do if he found himself in the Amazon. Europe contains no spaces quite like these. We confront a myth of the New World, especially of its tropical southern half. The point is clear from the first moments of the film, when a train of soldiers and slaves winds up and around some impossible Peruvian mountains. Herzog must have gotten his cameras up here the same way the Spanish got their cannons, by dint of pushing and pulling. The soundtrack is dominated by a wordless choral chant: for once this hackneyed device is appropriate, registering an awe that the images truly substantiate. It is important for Herzog to establish a weird atmosphere here at the very start. By this means he (and Aguirre) will get away with murder.
Seldom have there been great films about exploration from Hollywood or anywhere else—nothing, certainly, to match the above-mentioned tradition of the Western, with its complicated diffusion on the international scene. The exploration of the New World is perhaps a difficult subject for the movies. The Western usually aims for some reasonable balance between wildness and civilization: most of John Ford's films can be seen to dramatize this interplay, imagining a moment when the West can finally be tamed. Explorers, on the other hand, don't confront a half-civilized place. They march into a territory so alien it seems merely empty. Marcio Souza's The Emperor of the Amazon, a recent bestseller in Brazil, makes the point elegantly:
I am the prisoner of a paysage . . . [writes the novel's hero]. The beach was a no-man's-land, and I began to reflect upon the challenge what such a landscape represented for literature. See how civilized I am? Lost in the jungle but busy pondering literary problems. Problems which, incidentally, I never managed to work out. I only know that such preoccupation with nature effaces human character. And that the Amazonian landscape is so complex in its detail that, inevitably, we are led to victimize its contours with sonorous-sounding adjectives, sacrificing the real in all its grandeur.
The Amazon can be understood as a void, an unfillable emptiness. "It is the largest hydrographic basin in the world and the only one that has not bequeathed an important civilization to the history of man." Half in the spirit of parody, half in desperation, Souza pours literary conventions into the Amazon, which continues to be—the Amazon, nothing more nor less. For the explorer, at any rate, this territory wipes out all sense of a shared social or aesthetic reality. Herzog, I hope to show, approaches the tropical wilderness similarly—finding, however, his own idiosyncratic solutions to the problem stated by the novelist.
Herzog seems to have mastered some appropriate techniques before he discovered their use. A microcosmic society of exploiters and victims breaks down into chaotic solipsism. This condition is communicated by the fixed stare of the camera on grotesque images and situations. Herzog's formula, as thus described, sounds like run-of-the-mill European absurdism until it is transferred from the claustrophobic Old World to the infinitely spacious Amazon.2 The New World reinvigorates this plot—makes it the vehicle of a confrontation between imagination and nature. Time and again, nature swallows imagination whole.
One or two examples will have to stand for many. When Aguirre's chief henchman beheads a malingerer from behind, the head flies off the body, lands in the dirt, then continues to speculate on the chances of getting home—of retracing all those bends in the mighty Amazon. After a moment, its speculations cease. This is an odd joke and a good one. Heads cannot talk after they are severed from bodies, but the fact that this one does surprises neither Aguirre nor his men. While the Amazon presents itself as the perfect world for adventure—for making a name—not even miracles have much of an impact. The void cannot be filled by even the most fantastic happenings.
Once we understand this point, we can grasp Aguirre's dilemma. The adventurer is after fame even more than wealth. His ambition is that there should be a story to be told about him. It is not surprising that Aguirre's grandiloquent gestures eventually become suicidal. His goal is not, ultimately, the practical building of an actual empire. He wants to leave a mark on this, the blankest part of the world, and if he has to march himself and all his men to death, so be it. Immediately after the beheading scene, Aguirre gives the great speech where he wills himself to be the Wrath of God. The birds will drop down dead from the trees the moment he orders them to do so. So he says. The claim is patently untrue, but no matter: Aguirre strains to make his own myth, which will subdue the myth of the Amazon.
And does he succeed? The question here is essentially a question of storytelling, of how and by whom the story is told and what kind of impact it has. Aguirre does, in fact, possess a floating, anonymous narrator. Many of the scenes are accompanied by a voiceover giving dates and data, sometimes rendering moral or logistical judgments. The voice must belong to a member of the expedition, but we are not exactly told which member—not until the very end, when the "I" on the soundtrack can be linked to the expedition's priest. Now for the payoff. Moments after the priest is finally established as the film's narrator, he is wiped out by an Indian attack. We pin our narrator down, then instantly lose him. We are left inside a world shaped by Aguirre's final monologue, in which he swears to marry his recently-deceased daughter and so repopulate the Amazon. The camera makes wide, sweeping circles around the conqueror's raft, freeing us from this mad solipsism but planting it in our memories too. Aguirre has won his victory. The more impotently fabulous his oaths, the finer his peculiar triumph.
Herzog's reductio ad absurdum of the adventure story could never create its own genre. There will be no John Ford for the cinema of exploration.3 This eccentric film, moving outside the conventions and anti-conventions of Hollywood, has nonetheless a significant historical point. Where the Western populates the wilderness, tames it in one way or another, Aguirre asserts that the void is always there. The New World is fundamentally unlike the Old, for while it may belong to the Indians it can never belong to us. This is an interesting proposition to discuss at a moment when the Amazon is being picked over by some highly-efficient international corporations. Perhaps this impossible river basin will one day look like a suburb? Maybe, but it will be the Amazon still, a place where tradition of the European kind is almost a contradiction in terms. Aguirre's dilemma—the German vision of a Spanish expedition up the Amazon—may communicate, however distortedly, some of our own abiding fear: our sense of an emptiness in American cultures. To put this another way, the suburbs may be more like the Amazon than we think. John Berryman, who sometimes seemed to be the Aguirre of poetry, would probably have agreed. His four hundred Dream Songs are one more unfollowable act in the grand New World fashion. Herzog's highly European film now joins this unsociable Pantheon.
1. The Emperor of the Amazon was recently translated by Thomas Colchie and published in paperback by Avon/Bard. See pp. 75-80 of this edition for the hero's first confrontation with the Amazon.
2. One can see an early version of this formula in Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970).