Like most writers and serious readers I know, I have a collection of favorite opening and closing lines of novels. Like most people with a scattered memory, I tend to remember the Big Ones—the last line of The Great Gatsby, the first line of Anna Karenina, or Pride and Prejudice, or, heaven help me, Hard Times, that most known and least characteristic of Dickens’ novels. Or a new favorite opener, from Tom Drury’s excellent, moving, and funny The End of Vandalism: “One fall they held the blood drive in the fire barn at Grafton.” Every word but the last is a monosyllabic tread in a laconic march of fs, bs, and ds.
(Have your own favorites? Add them here.)
Of course, as a lover of film, I have favorite scenes from that medium, as well. And the first that come to mind are always the same: the opening and closing scenes of Werner Herzog’s 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I returned to that film recently, eager to be excited and slightly terrified by the eeriness of the synthesized music and the opening long shot in which we see a march of people, ant-like, winding down the steep jungle face of an Andean pass. The scene didn’t disappoint, though the first shot didn’t linger as long as I remembered over the mist-hidden mountain. Herzog’s second shot sustains the mood of the first, presenting us with a disorienting angle, as a ridiculously steep cliff cuts down from the left-hand side of the frame. We notice, again, the line of tiny people on a zig-zag path, surrounded by a vast expanse of jungle. Then the camera moves in just a little, and holds there to take in the marchers as they come towards us up another ridge. We see the tips of spears and pikes, and maybe the very top of someone’s Peruvian-hatted head, as the line of poncho-clad Indians passes just beneath where the camera is stationed. Eventually, Herzog switches to a sequence of shots taken from the path itself, and we see the artifacts that give us a grounding for the unease and dread that have been building: soldiers in Spanish armor, helmets among the Peruvian hats, chains binding Indian slaves together, a basket of chickens plummeting down the mountain, a sedan chair in which a velvet-gowned woman is ferried by more Indians. This is an attempt at mastery—Pizarro’s attempt to find El Dorado, as we later learn—and an exercise in folly: outsiders heedless to the power of a world that will inevitably destroy them.
As if that weren’t enough, by the time we reach the end of the film, we have only Aguirre and his dying daughter, felled by an Indian arrow that has pierced her brocade. Played by Herzog’s muse Klaus Kinski, Aguirre stalks about his decrepit raft like a drugged-up rock star (as if Johnny Depp had chosen Jagger not Richards as the basis for Jack Sparrow), driven mad by the failure of his conqueror’s ambitions. The camera follows Kinski as he roots around the raft’s cannon, dispersing a pack of small monkeys, while a voiceover offers us his plans to repopulate his own new world by marrying his daughter (Kinski’s daughter, Nastassia). Kinski snatches up one of the monkeys and holds it up to his face, baring his teeth at the animal. For a moment, we fear Kinski will imitate another rock star, but he tosses the creature aside. Herzog knows that the desolation of the raft, the dead bodies scattered upon it, the torn remnants of the sedan chair, and Aguirre’s own obvious delusion are sufficiently unsettling without such a gothic flourish.
The film’s final shot is a masterful counterpoint to the opening scene. Where the first images are static, the final shot is full of motion. Linear progress has given way to the circling of madness, as the camera makes a slow revolution around Aguirre’s raft. In the film’s opening sequence, Herzog offers the striking image of a cannon wheel strapped across the back of an Indian porter. Now the cannon is on the raft, and the raft is headed slowly but inexorably to the more turbulent water that we can glimpse at the very edges of the frame.
As I watched this marvelous scene, I pondered the mechanics of it. I imagined a giant boom protruding from a speedboat of some kind, with the camera thus hanging over the still water ahead of the boat. I rejected the idea of a helicopter, since the water bore no signs of propeller wind. In fact, Herzog did use a boat or motorized raft, and the surprising thing is that, as the camera circles Aguirre, the raft begins to be rocked by the boat’s wake. The rocking fits in with what we have already concluded from the plot of the story: that Aguirre is headed to some unseen waterfall (we have had an earlier long shot of rapids in the beginning of the film, and we have seen a raft trapped in a whirlpool). But it is quite clearly produced by the act of filming.
While Herzog likely had few other options, what is interesting is that Herzog held to this idea for the final scene, even though we would see the traces of its making. But then, in the opening shots of the Peruvian porters, we notice that a handful of the porters wear, beneath their ponchos, something that looks suspiciously like rolled up tracksuit bottoms. Herzog is a careful filmmaker. If he allowed for these slight intrusions of the outside, contemporary world, he did so mindfully. These tiny piercings of the film’s illusion remind us, after all, of the folly of yet another expedition to a mythical place: Herzog’s own filming expedition mounted with hundreds of Indians from the Cooperative Lauramarca, at 21,000 feet in Amazonian Peru. As in 1982’s Fitzcarraldo (again with Kinski), and the recent Grizzly Man, Herzog is fascinated with men who refuse to listen to the messages of the natural world around them, and who cling—in combined hopefulness and delusion—to the idea that they matter. As Roger Ebert eloquently puts it: these are “Men haunted by a vision of great achievement, who commit the sin of pride by daring to reach for it, and are crushed by an implacable universe.” Herzog does, of course, matter. And the arrogance of his characters is matched by a strange humility on the part of the filmmaker who has the sense to include himself among them.