Aguirre and the Rainforest: Madness in a Theater Made For It

Werner Herzog‘s Aguirre: Wrath of God is a supremely effective cinematic meditation on madness. It is able to marshal several progressions: that of the cinematic narrative, the journey into, through, and hopelessly within, an alien jungle-land, the simple passage of time, and run them alongside the descent into insanity of the movie’s eponymous central character.  It is this relentless, fatal, spiraling downward into a place we wish we never will see that remains the movie’s grimmest and most compelling attraction. It is entirely unsurprising to find this movement toward the darker regions of mind and space features a soundtrack that enjoys critical acclaim; Aguirre’s journey into madness has a symphonic majesty to it that demands, and finds, an appropriate musical accompaniment.

And this journey does not just take place anywhere. It  has a very singular location: the Amazonian rainforest.

What is truly peculiar about the rainforest is that it runs the contrasts of the wild densely together in an unrelentingly claustrophobic space: here is life, thick, lush, green, omnipresent, struggling constantly for space, water, air, sustenance; here too is death, the generations of plant and animal life trodden down, buried, integrated into the flesh of the rainforests’ new inhabitants; here is open space, untouched by man; here is space colonized by the forest’s growth.  All wildernesses remind us of remoteness from human concern; the rainforest throws up perhaps the thickest barriers against the exertion of human will.  This is a theater of madness par excellence.

When Aguirre’s daughter, Flores, is told by their Indian prisoner that they will never leave the rainforest, that they are doomed, the chill the viewer feels has been building for a while; the Indian has merely articulated what has thus far remained unsaid. He has finally forced attention to the elephant in the room: this journey is doomed, not just because of its leader’s megalomania, greed, and insanity, but also because of all the places in the world that he could have chosen to exercise his fevered, misguided vision, he has done so in a place so implacably indifferent and hostile to human ambition and desire. The backdrop for Aguirre’s story is that of the conquistador’s ‘conquest’ of the Americas; here, even that unstoppable juggernaut must finally come to a grinding, muddy, watery halt, strangled in the flora and fauna of the rainforest.

Aguirre‘s book-ends possess a beautiful structural perfection: the opening scene captures the descent of a chain of tiny, struggling, destined-to-be-outmatched humans into a misty valley, accompanied by the soundtrack’s haunting opening notes; the final scene shows us Aguirre’s insanity is complete; he has announced his hallucinatory vision of his promised kingdom; the forest has crept up to the edge and started picking off stragglers; the monkeys–possibly symbolic of the forces of madness set loose in Aguirre’s mind–run rampant over the raft; all is lost. And the raft floats on, toward its final union with the ocean, carrying on it the latest victims of the encounter of human hubris and nature’s indifference.