Gazing Into Werner Herzog’s Landscapes of the Soul

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) | Werner Herzog Filmproduktion


“Sometimes I believe that people in them carry a landscape of their soul.
I’ve spoken often about it in films.” 

Werner Herzog, The Radical Dreamer


Through a thick mist, a swarm of people descend ant-like
down the face of a steep mountain. As they slink down this vertical death trap, ever so carefully teetering on the edge of some Biblical disaster, their insignificance is laid bare. The physical presence of the mountain overpowers them. A haunting, ethereal score cloaks the scene in spiritual mysticism, narrowing our gaze towards the oneiric image. 

A title card and a priest’s voiceover tell us when and where we are—1560, Christmas Day, the “impenetrable bogs of the Amazon tributaries”—but even in the weeds of these filmic tropes of narrative fiction, we are unknowingly transported to a mythical past. The look and feel of it all is as if we’re watching an ancient theological documentary from Christmas Day, 1560, set in the impenetrable bogs of the Amazon tributaries. The film crew follows a colony of Spanish conquistadors and their colonized native slaves as they venture forth towards El Dorado in search of untold wealth. At some point in time, the documentary is preserved in a time capsule, only to be unearthed 400 years later by a young Bavarian filmmaker. 

Though not his first feature film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) marks the birth of “Herzog” as an adjective—the baptismal rite of passage of a sui generis landscape filmmaker, purified and cleansed in the holy pandemonium of the Urubamba River, as it were. “I’m doing all this here,” Herzog tells Laurens Straub in the German commentary of the film, “to track down a deeper truth. I always call this the ecstatic truth.” 

Herzog’s ecstatic landscapes—be they the chaotic Amazonian jungles and rivers in Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, the scorched earth of the Kuwaiti oil fields in Lessons of Darkness (1992), or the crystalline surface of Antarctica and entropic depths of the Ross Sea in Encounters at the End of the World (2007)—are treated as the greatest of symbols. Their artistic purpose, as filtered through Herzog’s lens, is to mirror the pursuits and fixations of man. Through these reflections, dreams and obsessions coalesce and eat each other like an ouroboros, creating an organic brand of cinema full of life and pregnant with a clear sense of present danger, incessantly piercing something deep within us. But what?  

We give in. Easily immersed by the great roles assigned to the landscapes to try and find out. Throughout the decades, we watch mountains, rivers, jungles, seas, and deserts develop Herzogian characteristics, and become characters’ shadow selves, shaping identities and destinies, as we, along with the characters on screen, keep our gaze fixed…

~ Into the Abyss ~

“I am the wrath of God.
The earth I pass will see me and tremble.
Whoever follows me and the river, will win untold riches. Whoever deserts… ”

– Lope de Aguirre

When it comes to jungles on screen, there is before Aguirre and after Aguirre. The bulk of the story takes place on a rickety raft that may as well be held together by sellotape, taking a troop of Spanish conquistadors and their one horse from point A to point ∞ on the Urubamba River in Peru. Very much a leading character in this story, the river is the centrifugal force that unmoors all the characters from land and from logic. Lengthy wide shots of the river cut to close-ups of the same, breaking every convention, accompanied only by Popol Vuh’s psychedelically-inclined score of devout dread and the unmistakable feeling of a doomed conquest. As the jungle’s vital artery, the maddening river coils and carves through the lush expanse as both lifeline and boundary. The unbridled density of the jungle itself, with its thick puddles of sludge, twisted roots, and gorgeous greens, is ever-present and omniscient. Not as directly front and center as the river perhaps, but sharing co-lead status all the same, Klaus Kinksi, notorious off-screen megalomaniac, must’ve been livid with jealousy.

When it comes to actors playing characters possessed by delusions of grandeur on screen, there is before Kinski and after Kinski. The film is atypically laconic, with a title character who prefers to communicate through movement and sheer presence, not words. Herzog and DP Thomas Mauch took full advantage of his threatening aura, as seen when Aguirre tries to convince a caged man to join his cause, and the shivering hand-held camera frames Kinski between the bars, reminding us that we the audience are also trapped in this claustrophobic environment with a madman as our jailer. Herzog’s English commentary for the film (from this collected set) is a must-listen, if only for the way he describes Kinski’s physicality—“He keeps moving like some kind of crab or spider,” “Here you see the leather straps on his back, as if he needed to be held together by leather straps, otherwise he would somehow fall apart.”

Aguirre’s journey towards El Dorado is one of the most spectacular foregone conclusions in cinema. The journey is a gradual descent, and the destination is the hellscape of a mind gone mad. As the narrative contours shapeshift in the final act—a ship impossibly stranded high up in a tree top feels like the most natural thing in the world—the river and the jungle, personified by the indigenous tribes whom you never see when they’re at their deadliest, symbolize this hellscape. It’s tough to know when Aguirre and the landscape become one, but by the time he delivers his famous monologue and posits himself and the river as partners you know it to be true. We’re not just trapped with a madman, we’re also trapped in a mad land.

Tough as it is to pinpoint the exact moment of this unification, two remarkable scenes rush to the front as contenders. The first is when the men throw their one and only horse overboard and abandon it in the jungle, while they continue to follow the river. As they drift away from the riverbank, the deserted horse stands at the water’s edge, frozen in time and space, whipping up a tragic hurricane of emotions just by being there, framed in the clutches of the green, organic uncertainty. A sacrificial lamb that’s accepted its fate and silently awaits the jungle’s dagger. The shot rests on this incredibly simple image just long enough for our gaze to sink through, and then it cuts to Aguirre, who can’t take his eyes off of it, either. A moment of deep reflection for all involved. 

The second moment comes after Aguirre’s monologue. The river has come to a near-standstill, the very flow of space and time as frozen as the horse on the riverbank; the men have all but been killed off or lost their minds so completely that they may as well be dead. Aguirre is alone, as the camera swirls around the stationary raft on the deathly still river, and calmly talks about further conquests of Trinidad and Mexico, about founding a pure dynasty by marrying his own daughter and ruling the entire continent. As he obsessively ponders these grandiose delusions, his only audience is a barrel of adorable monkeys who’ve mysteriously appeared and seemingly invaded the raft. In one of cinema’s great, grotesquely comical movements, Kinski grabs one of the monkeys and reminds it that he is the Wrath of God, before nonchalantly tossing it aside and asking the jungle oblivion, “Who is with me?” 

The event horizon of obsession, with man’s crab-like metamorphosis into a monster of the jungle, is complete. He has become as indifferent and wild as the jungle he’s lost in.

***

“I’m planning something geographical.”

– Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, Fitzcarraldo


Herzog returned to the Amazon ten years after Aguirre to direct the career-defining film that almost cost him his life and his sanity. The parallels between Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre are easy to see (The Amazon! Kinski!), but it’s the differences that permanently stitch the relationship between landscape and man into Herzog’s search for the ecstatic truth. Whereas Kinski’s Lope de Aguirre was a bloodthirsty conqueror, drunk on power and transfixed by an untamed desire for fame and fortune, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (or ‘Fitzcarraldo,’ as the locals call him) is a big dreamer, head over heels in love with opera and transfixed by an untamed passion to share his love with those who haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing it. He’s an altruist at heart. 

Roger Ebert rightly called Aguirre an “obsessive film, about obsession” but when Norman Hill asks Herzog on the film’s commentary if his own obsession with finishing Fitzcarraldo impacted the main character, you could almost hear Herzog wince at the idea:

“I would be careful to speak of obsession, because I’m a professional and people sometimes believed I was going crazy or whatever. Fact is, I’m sane. I’m clinically sane, so to speak. And in a way that somehow of course [the film] had originated from a dream, from something deep inside of me, but I would be cautious to speak of obsession. There was a deep faith in that. Something almost religious that kept me going, but no craze, no obsession, nothing of that.”

Obsession has a negative connotation, so naturally Herzog hesitates to use the word, but we have Les Blank’s documentary, The Burden of Dreams; Herzog’s own book of thoughts written during the shoot and published years later, Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo; and the very idea of a real 340-ton ship getting dragged up and down a very real mountain slope, all as exhibits of how one man’s dream can have all the markings of a crazed fixation. The same can be said of Fitzcarraldo. His love for the opera, particularly Enrico Caruso, is so contagious, so wholesome, that you can’t help but root for the guy. He is utterly convinced that everyone will be just as moved by Caruso as he is if they just hear him sing. When he plays a sample for a snobbish crowd at a dinner party, he is completely oblivious to their indifference—erupting in the snap of a second like a rabid dog whose tail just got yanked when a member of staff tries to take the gramophone away from him. A few scenes earlier, we witnessed Fitzcarraldo on top of a belfry, overlooking the entire town of Iquitos, screaming “I WANT MY OPERA HOUSE!” to no one and everyone, ringing the church bell with deranged abandon. A man possessed not by God, or the devil, but by the emotional beauty of Enrico Caruso’s opera. A man in need of some kind of exorcism all the same. 

Were he portrayed by anyone other than Klaus Kinski—for example, Jason Robards, who was originally cast and filmed 40% of the film before contracting amoebic dysentery—Fitzcarraldo would’ve had a completely different complexion to him, which would have, in turn, colored Fitzcarraldo in a more romantic shade, making it easier to see the dream, less so the obsession. As fate would have it, Herzog, Kinski and the Amazon wilderness were destined to reunite. If Aguirre was the baptismal rite of a new, never-before-seen landscape filmmaker, Fitzcarraldo was the confirmation.

Once we’re in the jungle with Kinksi, it’s impossible not to see glints of Aguirre’s insanity in his bulbous and piercing eyes. No one stares like Kinski stares. Just as you’ll never change a leopard’s spots, so too is it impossible to remove the volatile intensity that resonates from Kinski’s gaze, even when he’s playing a good-at-heart hero. And just as in Aguirre, this wild force of nature buzzing within Kinski is only equaled by the wild force of nature seen in the Amazonian jungle and the raging rapids—the ultimate undoing of Fitzcarraldo’s grand design. Without Kinski, the landscape would’ve just been a pretty setting. With Kinski, it attaches itself to the character and springs to symbolic life.

The bond between Fitzcarraldo and the jungle he ventures into is rendered inextricable in a defining moment, long before he manages to drag the ship over the mountain. As the steamship ventures deeper into “the land where God did not finish his creation,” (what the tribe called “Cayahuari Yacu”, from the  film’s opening title card) the indigenous people welcome it with the ominous sounds of drums—the natural score of a threatening unknown. As he did at the dinner party with the indifferent upper-class snobs, Fitzcarraldo dusts off the gramophone, climbs to the main mast and gives the stage to Enrico Caruso’s tenor. This time, the audience—though invisible to the naked eye behind the deep green wilderness—is not indifferent. Caruso conquers the drums, which stop in perceived reverence, and Fitzcarraldo radiates with pride, standing tall next to the gramophone, as the ship glides in continuous motion towards its destiny against the backdrop of the wild Amazon. He has communicated with the jungle, through Caruso, and the jungle has replied.

The aboriginal people reveal themselves soon after and help Fitzcarraldo drag the ship over the mountain. But the celebration is cut short when he wakes up the next morning to find that they have released the ship into the rapids. Their reason for helping is finally revealed: the ship needed to be released in order to ward off the evil spirits of the rapids. The shots of the ship getting slapped around by the rapids join the collection of ecstatic Herzogian truths—this gigantic hunk of metal, wood and steel that required so much effort to be dragged across the mountain by the willpower of man is rendered completely powerless by sheer force of nature. The only comparison to the wildness on display is the earlier scene of an unhinged Fitzcarraldo, ringing the church bell and screaming about his opera house.  

Devastated, Fitzcarraldo returns with his bruised and beaten ship. But just when all hope seems lost, he snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. Unlike Aguirre, who succumbs to the intoxicating drug of the jungle, Fitzcarraldo proves more resilient. He sells the ship and uses the money to rent an opera company. He sets them up on the deck of the ship, and, cigar in hand, floats on by an adoring Iquitos crowd—beaming with that same kind of cathartic pride we saw once before, when he first entered the jungle. Whether the evil spirits of the rapids were successfully warded off, we’ll never know, but any evil spirits disguising Fitzcarraldo’s dream as obsession were undoubtedly exorcized. 

The abyss of the jungle gazed back at both Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, but where one chose to embrace his monstrous, reflected obsession, the other rejected it. In Herzogian terms, it’s the happiest of endings.

~ Beyond the Abyss ~ 

“Two figures are approaching an oil well. One of them holds a lighted torch.
What are they up to? Are they going to rekindle the blaze?
Has life without fire become unbearable for them?
Others, seized by madness, follow suit.
Now they are content.
Now there’s something to extinguish again.”

– Werner Herzog, Lessons of Darkness

In Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, the fictional characters are loosely inspired by real-life historical counterparts, and Herzog’s insistence—to the detriment of many around him, as well as his own mental health—on filming on location with real rafts and real ships cloaks the stories in a texture of factual realism. In his documentaries, this dance between fiction and reality would be reversed; he spins real-life stories with the flair of abstract fantasy.   

Lessons of Darkness is a 50-minute war ballad in cinematic form, sparsely narrated with the cadence and reverence of a man who’s been to hell and back. It recounts the aftermath of the first Gulf War, divided into thirteen chapters, garbed in religious overtones until the bitter final chapter—“I am so tired of sighing; O Lord, let it be night”—and completely devoid of a narrative center. We see ravaged landscapes of Kuwait’s oil fields, aerial shots of ominously black smoke clouds asphyxiating the atmosphere, acres of land covered in the kind of sand worthy of Frank Herbert’s science fiction, and Caterpillars made of indifferent menace and metal fulfilling the Manifest Destiny of the industrial complex. A land upon which, Herzog tells us, “the battle had raged so ferociously that afterwards, grass would never grow here again.”  

A charred landscape from which death itself flees:, the physical manifestation of man’s obsession with destruction and his indifference to the consequences of this destruction wrought upon the land and its people. The correct response to this portrait of scorched hell on earth is one of mesmerized horror. It is a testament to the lengths man will go in his thirst for power and resources. 

Lessons of Darkness is the realization of Aguirre’s worldview. The figures with lighted torches that Herzog observes, seized by madness and a desire to extinguish, may as well be  the Spanish conquistador’s direct descendants. As his dying priest chokes on his own blood in his final moments, Aguirre advises him to pray, “lest God’s end be uncomely.” Lessons of Darkness is that uncomely end. The organic and natural landscape of the lush green Amazonian jungles is entwined with threatening uncertainty, an abyss that reflects man’s dark obsessions of greed, conquest and power back at him in its own frightful gaze. The post-apocalyptic wrath of the Kuwaiti oil fields, so scarred with frightening certainty with their black lakes of boiling oil and dark clouds that block out the sun, is a world beyond the abyss of the jungle, where the ravaged landscapes reflect a much more direct and literal reality. However, the obsessions remain the same.


***

“He would neither go towards the feeding grounds at the edge of the ice, nor return to the colony.
Shortly afterwards we saw him heading straight towards the mountains, some seventy kilometers away.
Dr Ainley explained that even if we caught him and brought him back to the colony, he would immediately head right back for the mountains…
…but why?”

– Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World

In the new century, the most evocative and otherworldly Herzogian land is found during his Encounters at the End of the World. A whole community of strange and offbeat inhabitants dwell on this desolate chunk of ice, on a station called McMurdo at the southern tip of Ross Island in the Antarctic. Herzog interviews an eclectic variety of them, but by the time we’re halfway through, we have a strong sense of how alike they all are. “If you take everybody who’s not tied down,” one of the residents explains, “they all sort of fall down to the bottom of the planet, so that’s how we got here, you know. We’re all at loose ends, and here we are together.” Herzog’s curiosity about the way of life in this land beyond civilization stretches above and below the ice.

Above, the vast expanse of ice and snow is a world that couldn’t be further removed from the fiery desolation of the oil fields. Despite the ugliness of McMurdo Station, and the “abominations such as aerobic studios and yoga classes” as Herzog eloquently puts it, this is land that’s mostly unharmed by man. A sublime blank canvas reflecting the insignificance of human obsessions, juxtaposed against the eternal, indifferent majesty of nature. The indigenous people in Fitzcarraldo believed that God would return to finish His Creation only after man has disappeared. The Herzogian Antarctic is the blank new page of God’s next chapter. A post-post-apocalyptic land where nature is in flux of self-rejuvenation, following the destruction we saw in Lessons of Darkness.

Below, a wild and threatening world brims with as much uncertainty and awesome darkness as the Amazon jungle, and is just as vibrant with organic life—but not the same organisms. In contrast to the familiar tweets of birds and buzzing of insects, the sounds of the seals under the ice are almost alien. “They sound like Pink Floyd,” is how one of the researchers puts it. These synthesized songs provide the soundtrack to the  hidden realm underneath a frozen sky, submerged in perpetual darkness. A surreal landscape of eerie, luminescent beauty, whose creatures look like contorted relics from some prehistoric age, as if forgotten by the evolutionary cycle altogether or at the early stages of a brand new one. They embody a silent defiance against the isolating cold—and, in true Herzogian fashion, a chilling indifference to the human condition. They also remind us that no matter what folly man does up above, there is life below. Even in the most inhospitable environments, life not only endures, but thrives.

All the humans who are at their loose ends and have fallen down to the bottom of this frozen planet stand in reverence to nature and all of its creatures. Marine microbiologists are passionately curious about new discoveries, physicists are in awe of neutrinos, and ecologists feel much more comfortable around penguins than humans. They’re not conquerors gone mad, only dreamers perceived to be so.

Encounters at the End of the World is the realization of Fitzcarraldo’s worldview. After his dreams of building an opera house wash away with the rapids, he recounts the story of the first explorer who discovered Niagara Falls. When asked for proof, the explorer simply replied, “the proof is that I’ve seen them.” Fitzcarraldo didn’t understand the meaning of the story, or its connection to his own ambitions, but we see it again in Encounters at the End of the World. Whether in the penguin who so resolutely heads towards the mountains and certain death on his own, or the divers who remind Herzog of “priests preparing for mass” before diving underneath the frozen sky, there is the familiar intimate and impenetrable faith in the majesty and wonder of this world that Fitzcarraldo would relate to. Building an opera house in the middle of the jungle was the obsession, not the dream. The real dream was to bring the opera to the residents of Iquitos, and the fact that that dream was still alive even when he lost the ship after dragging it over the mountain was proof. 

The Antarctic landscape, whether in its Earthly majesty above the ice or the extraterrestrial depths below, directly reflect the wonders of our planet in a literal sense, but also the wonders within us, those wonders that can easily be misconstrued for obsession by non-believers. The stuff that faith, dreams, and curiosity are made of.

The stuff that moves ships over mountains and directs penguins towards the interiors of vast continents.

***

Never just a setting for the sake of aestheticism or good cinematography, the Herzogian landscape is romanticized in darkness, infused with meaning and purpose. It is a vital narrative force that mirrors and shapes all the humans and animals fortunate or unfortunate enough to be immersed in it.

This force—this ecstatic truth—mirrors human obsessions in all their real and imagined forms. Like an alchemical process, the Herzogian touch, be it stylized or documented, transmutes these indifferent terrains into reflectors of our true natures. And they either manifest as obsessions disguised as noble pursuits or dreams perceived as mad obsessions. The landscapes embody the battlefield inside all of us, where good and evil, madness and dreams, wage their eternal war. Where we wrestle with monsters and the risk of turning into one.

In The Radical Dreamer, a 2022 documented portrait of his approach to life and art, Herzog takes the director Thomas von Steinaecker on a little tour of the Bavarian village where he grew up. At one point, they stand by a brook and admire a waterfall. “Sometimes I believe that people in them carry a landscape of their soul,” Herzog says. Turning towards the waterfall, he says, “That’s where I belong. That’s my landscape. That’s me.” He would later confess that, though it would be easy to find out the origin of the waterfall, until today he does not know where it is. He concludes:

 “And I don’t want to know.”

Perhaps the ecstatic truth lies in the not knowing, in never knowing the answer to the “but, why?” question. Why does a penguin waddle towards a mountain and away from his colony, or a baron want to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle? Why do certain men wish to rekindle a blaze and embrace the wrath of God they see all around them?        

Perhaps the next time we gaze upon a landscape we will feel it gazing also into us, and reject the temptation to obsess over our search for a definitive truth, for in that process lies too monstrous a risk. Perhaps we will recognize the beauty in the mystery, rejoice in the ecstasy of the moment and look for no further proof beyond just having seen it.