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“Aguirre: Wrath of God” A sonic delight of the senses

Klaus Kinski as Aguirre, and small friend.
Klaus Kinski as Aguirre, and small friend.

Back in 1972 a strange and wonderful film was released to a slightly bemused public by the German film-maker Werner Herzog. “Aguirre: Wrath of God” came four years after Herzog’s first film, “Signs of Life” 1968, and was something of a masterpiece in every way; script, acting, imagery and cinematography and a musical film score that enhanced everything that it came into contact with, taking us on the painful descent into madness of the main protagonist, as well as a journey through brutal historical realism and hallucinatory psychedelic visions. All of this was due to Herzog’s detail to the attention of sound, as much as image.
The main actor was the strange, enigmatic, flawed and volatile Klaus Kinski who could not have had a script better tailored for his true character. The film tells the strange tale of the doomed search by the conquistador Pizzaro and his henchman Aguirre for the fabled city of El Dorado in the Peruvian jungle in the mid-16th century. Its imagery is breath taking, as are some of the scenes from the actors. They are naturally out classed by the landscapes they are in, and to match this awe inspiring imagery and tension created through its use the film score adds and enhances rather than dominates the middle ground of the film. Unlike most American and European Films of the period the score was sparse and atmospheric creating a companion to the film rather than at odds with it. When the film or scene needed no sound the score was absent but then at other times it creeps along so subliminally that you are truly unaware of the emotional impact it is actually having on your psyche.
For any budding, or would be, film composer this film is one of the finest examples of how to underscore a film and create such subtle subliminal changes in the way we view the action that it is still studied forty odd years later as a point of reference. It spawned many underscored scores for many years to come. Some successfully, some not so great, and some that were really just not worth commissioning.
The score was written on the then brand new cutting edge computers and electronic keyboards of the time by the German group “Popol Vuh”. Who? Well, yes exactly, who created this masterpiece? Listening to the score separately from the film you could be forgiven for thinking this is a score by another German band “Tangerine Dream”; always worth listening to and searching out, but not so, it is by “Popol Vuh”.
“Popl Vuh”, Florian Fricke at the very front circa 1973.
“Popl Vuh”, Florian Fricke at the very front circa 1973.

So who were “Popol Vuh”? They were founded by Florian Fricke who happened to be an old close friend of Herzog’s and had been founded by him a little while before this collaboration on Aguirre. The name itself, “Popol Vuh”, comes from the Mayan name for ‘meeting place’, which was quite apt considering the meeting of artistic minds on this film.
One of the central ideas in the film appears to be that of an eternal landscape, that although altering in micro, remains unchanging and vast in its macro vision. This is mirrored in the visceral landscapes created by Fricke et al on the electronic instruments they had at hand. Considering the film is so true to life in its historical re-enactments it is surprising that the music was so modern and visionary. Yet through the displacement of the old with the modern we find a score that is timeless, and yet of its time. It creates parallels within the film of a modern stance on madness and yet the madness is of four hundred years before. The music matches this out of time stance and creates landscapes that are of the physical world and of the mind that ape the degeneration of Aguirre in a calm almost accepting way without storm or violence. Landscape and soundscape become interchangeable as well as reliant upon each other in all aspects.
If there is a sound that defines the film throughout then it is the sound of the human voice. Not in sung dialogue or choirs but small recorded voice patterns that are fed through the keyboards to create a large wordless choral façade that Fricke and co. used in a new and novel manner, creating vast landscapes of sound as well as small intimate elements allowing depth to be added to the visuals through careful editing and motivic interplay of leitmotivic characterisations that are so subtle that they go unnoticed throughout the film. It is this sound that would come to define the sonic soundworld of “Aguirre”.
Circles, or should I say the vortexes, are central to the films imagery and music. The idea of repeating motifs in image and sound play a large part in the subconscious of the film and in one dramatic scene a group of conquistadors whirl round a whirlpool on a raft before vanishing into its centre and drowning. The music uses repetitive motifs that are contrasted and juxtaposed against a pulse that appears to drift. This drifting is done through treating the pulse with effects and pushing the actual impact of the pulse to a “shattering and sharding” of sound. Fracturing of the pulse in this way breaks the beat over which the continuous repetitions reflecting the circling and vortexes in the imagery are brought very much into question and our perceptions of them. Thus leading us to question sanity and insanity in ourselves as much as on the screen.
The ideas used by Popol Vuh to link to the film are very subtle. Some of their sounds are world music orientated while others link to the Catholic Church’s plaintchant. The idea of using vocal choral sound loops brings a vague aspect of the pseudo religious into the mix as their use of indigenous instrumental sounds also connects with the Indian aboriginals and thus ties the disparate elements tightly together without much external referencing necessary. The fact that the choral sound is used in a quasi-artificial way to suggest rather than quote religious supremacy and thus makes us also question the role of the church in this early incursion into a pre-Christian Latin America and how it too was as dangerous to the indigenous peoples as the conquistadors and their plagues of illness and contempt.
I hope that in some small measure I have piqued your interest in this most amazing of visually impactive, as well as musically challenging and yet calming films from the last 40 odd years. Herzog went on to produce many interesting films but to many this is his strange and beguiling masterpiece for the imagery and its strong interrelation with the integrated music by “Popol Vuh”.

Posted by author: Ash Ahmed
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4 thoughts on ““Aguirre: Wrath of God” A sonic delight of the senses

  • Lovely to read about Popol Vuh on here. Such an important band. The film work is great, but pretty much everything recorded under that name is worth getting. And there’s lots of it. It’s odd because there isn’t always much happening. Yoday I listened to what’s often cited as their best record “In den Gärten Pharaos” while I did some reading and there’s nothing much to grab onto, but you know..
    My entry to them was the soundtrack to Herzog’s version of Nosferatu, which is spooky and uplifting. Best use of a sitar that I’ve ever heard.
    I’m a bit of a music geek and lists are important… The soundtracks (and the films are all worth watching too, especially Fitzcarraldo and Nosferatu):
    From Wikipedia: The band contributed soundtracks to the films of Werner Herzog, including Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde, Heart of Glass and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, in which Fricke appeared.
    The ‘normal’ albums that I think are essential (though anything from the 70s is worth having):
    In den Gärten Pharaos (1971)
    Hosianna Mantra (1972)
    Seligpreisung (1973)
    Einsjäger und Siebenjäger (1974)
    Brüder des Schattens – Söhne des Lichts (1978)
    Die Nacht der Seele (1979)
    Sei still, wisse ICH BIN (1981)

  • I completely agree about the ‘something of a masterpiece’ assessment. The opening scene gives a flavour of the grandiose scale of the film – the combination of the repetitive soundtrack and the tiny scale of the actors as they emerge from the mist immediately suggests one of the key themes; there is no point to all the brutality which follows, it is simply human folly.
    Without taking anything away from Francis Ford Coppola and Apocalypse Now, I remain convinced that Herzog showed the way.

  • Great to see we have touched a few nerves with this blog. When I was watching the opening sequence before I sat and wrote the blog I was struck by what you have said Gareth about the immensity of the grandiose scale with the thin trickle of line of people descending the mountainside. Their puny scale in comparison to the landscape was daunting and did certainly put everything into a type of focus and perspective. The brutality, folly and stupidity of mankind I suppose in the face of the reality of things around them.
    Good to see there are other people out there who remember the delights of Popol Vuh and the likes of them from the heyday of real rock experimentation. As I say to people I try to keep the freak flag flying, good to see there are others too.

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