Thursday, August 13, 2015

Landscape as Counter-Cultural Ideology in Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Valhalla Rising

Before there is character in Werner Herzog’s 1972 art-house film Aguirre, The Wrath of God or Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2009 metatextual adventure film Valhalla Rising—despite being eponymously-titled character studies—there is landscape. While this may not appear divergent to cinematic history’s tradition of the establishing shot, the diegetic worlds which precede man in these films act as authorial narrative commentary.

David Bordwell speaks of the subjective nature of the art-house film’s use of landscape saying, “surroundings may be construed as the projections of a character's mind. Simi­larly, the syuzhet may use psychology to justify the manipu­lation of time,” but Herzog and Refn invert these conventions: rather than using character psychology to expressively “shape spatial representation,” the weightiness of the formal representation of landscape in these films paints its characters as pawns to nature’s indifferent and immovable will (Narration in 209). 

Landscape, then, becomes a character through its formal representation. The vulgarity of nature is juxtaposed against the violence of civilized man (in the name of religion) as a philosophical, authoritarian response to the marriage of colonialization and mythology. True to art-house convention, each film ties historical colonialization to a social critique of its respective history of cultures prevailing over other cultures. Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Refn’s Valhalla Rising juxtapose unforgiving landscape against religious colonization as a social indictment against cultural violence and the Western inability for communal mythology.

Though handled as a metaphoric and mythological figure within Herzog’s film, Lope de Aguirre cannot be divided from his historic significance as Spanish evangelical conquistador: the product of an ideology which justified its abuse of the New World in the name of God.
Spain’s King Ferdinand issued a decree in 1512 which “expressly invoked the papal donation as it ordered the ‘idolatrous Indians’ to acknowledge ‘the Church as the Ruler and Superior of the whole world’” (Anaya 36). That is to say, Lope de Aguirre’s expedition in Peru four decades later presupposes holy and political sovereignty. The allegorization of Lope de Aguirre as political commentary on the rise of Nazism in Herzog’s own post-World War II Germany is certainly authorial but not singular. Herzog’s formal use of editing, cinematography and mise-en-scène within Aguirre, The Wrath of God presents its landscape as a philosophical worldview of which the rise of Nazism is a symptom.

The opening sequence of Aguirre, The Wrath of God slyly alludes to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, The Triumph of the Will as each film presents its narrative as the beginning of a new empire through documentary-style text before the omniscient camera. Shooting from a high-angle, each film descends through the clouds onto a marching military as on a mission from God. Yet Herzog’s use of landscape subverts Riefenstahl’s intended montage. 

Omniscient descent through the clouds in the opening sequences of Aguirre, The Wrath of God (left) and Triumph of the Will (right)

In their critique of different cultural representations of Lope de Aguirre, Kirschner and Manchón connect the formal similarities between these two films, coming to the conclusion that, “a ciertas facciones de la historiografía alemana de la postguerra que conciben el fenómeno nazi como cataclismo natural en vez de catástrofe netamente humana de una magnitud incomentable” (“certain factions of the German historiography of the postwar Nazi phenomenon are conceived as natural disaster rather than purely human catastrophe of unspeakable magnitude” [author’s translation]) (Kirschner 414). This analysis relies, perhaps, too heavily on the Nazi metaphor and not heavily enough on the formal aspects of Herzog’s depiction of landscape which renders civilization impotent by comparison not consequence.

As the caravan of Spanish conquistadors and Indian slaves descend the Andes in the opening sequence, the extended take in extreme long shot doesn’t distinguish by race or class. They maneuver through the unforgiving terrain as one—an inconsequential string of ants—and it isn’t until the camera moves in to medium shot that petty coercion of civilization takes place: a cannon appears incongruous; a horse falls over igniting munitions; Ursúa’s mistress, Doña Inéz peers through an elaborately draped window on a makeshift raft. 

The mise-en-scène of Old World luxuries holds no value in the landscape of the New World. The narrow worldview of the conquistadors refuses their adaptation in a world of natural selection. Nature, through Herzog’s direction and Thomas Mauch’s cinematography, appears adamantly unchanged by and incomprehensible to the will of the Old World’s torchbearers. Jump cuts at varying focal lengths of the Amazon River—some of which blurry—suggest character (psychological and physical) disorientation just as extended takes of river landscape evoke madness. However, the formal variations don’t offer the audience a subjective viewpoint into the heads of the characters (their Old World actions and reason act as a psychological wedge, distancing them from the viewer) so much as they anthropomorphize nature.

Although the conquistadors are aware of their demise (“we’re all going to die” a character forebodes even before the film’s inciting incident), they steadfastly attempt to tame the New World with old logic. The camera breaks the 180-degree rule as they first board their rafts, and again when Aguirre, succumbed to madness on a raft of monkeys, is the lone survivor. On the surface, the deliberate editorial faux pas suggests character disorientation to contrast the film’s motif of the faulty hubris of linear logic (Aguirre promises, “whoever follows me and the river will win untold riches”; Don Fernando de Guzman boasts, “every day we drift makes [our new country] bigger”; and Brother Gaspar de Carvajal bastardizes Christ’s “lilies of the field” speech promising, “Thou lettest man flow on like a river, and Thy years know no end”), but the montage doesn’t suggest that the conquistadors can’t find their bearing so much as the landscape suggests there are no bearings to be found. 

The conquistadors respond to indifferent landscape not by adaptation, but by enforcing outdated law. Aguirre argues, “Because of our mutiny, we must make our position legal,” before conducting a trial in the rainforest. In the face of the New World, bureaucracy is delirium. When the film ends with Aguirre trapped in a whirlpool, the camera takes away character subjectivity and, in an extended take, surrounds the raft with a 360-degree pan. In his madness, Aguirre has learned the fault of his linear logic and fretfully declares, “we are drifting in circles!” Nature has no interest in cultural assimilation and the film’s formal tendencies portend the party’s demise.

If cinematography displays character blindness to surroundings figuratively, the film’s sound suggests their deafness literally. When one of the initial rafts gets trapped in a whirlpool, the screams of its boarders are completely cut off under the shroud of nightfall despite their close proximity to the men on the opposite bank. Aguirre responds to man’s horrified silence in the face of nature by ordering his men to fire the cannon despite a lack of target. 

Later, he demands an Indian slave play a traditional pan flute in a time of turmoil for no pragmatic purpose. Landscape chokes out the voice of civilized man and Aguirre has little recourse. Herzog also ties religion to his motif of sound as religious colonialization quite literally falls on deaf ears. Aguirre’s evangelism is a combination of hubris and Nietzschean construct. He urges a monk, “do not forget to pray, lest God’s end will be uncomely” as if Spanish rule eclipses God’s self-sustainability. Later he preaches, “If I, Aguirre, want the birds to drop dead from the trees, then the birds will drop dead from the trees. I am the wrath of God. The earth I pass will see me and tremble.” Aguirre commands nature’s subordination and is astonished when all he knows of civilization is futile.

Herzog’s use of metaphor and mise-en-scène predicts this futility of colonialism long before Aguirre’s awakening. The cannon the conquistadors wield is a symbol of both power and Christian fertility but, in the backdrop of the Amazon rainforest, it becomes a Sisyphean burden. The film reminds us at the beginning that “the Word of God must be brought to the pagans,” a credence reiterated by Carvajal near his journey’s end when he says, “Let’s not forget the most important part of our mission: to spread the Word of God to the savages.” Yet the fraudulent affectation of the Spanish Requerimeinto is exposed when an Indian holds a Bible up to his ear—expecting to hear the Word—only to be met with both silence from God and spiritual indifference from the ascetic.

Perhaps history, too, is what falls on deaf ears in reading Aguirre, The Wrath of God as social critique. The directors of New German Cinema challenged societal and political order. Not only did the new auteurs (of which Herzog was a charter member, having signed the Oberhausen Manifesto) rebel against the torpor of post-war German cinema’s narrative, formal, and economic sensibilities, opposition to Germany’s political climate found dissatisfaction with the stagnation of social change. 

The post-war population found “the toleration of ex-Nazis in prominent positions difficult to accept. This opposition movement was of course not confined to Germany; …protests swept across Europe and America, opposing in particular America’s involvement in Vietnam” (Knight 39). David Melbye argues that this cultural unrest and post-war nihilism played out in art-cinema’s landscape and formal variation; a “defeatism reflected a growing disillusion with traditional Christian beliefs, political attitudes toward ‘Third World’ nations, as well as modern society’s investment in technological advancement” (Melbye 6). If we refer back to the Riefenstahl allusion through this cultural refraction, landscape takes on a different historical meaning. The informational text prologue in The Triumph of the Will reads:

20 years after the outbreak of the World War, 16 years after the start of German suffering, 19 months after the start of Germany’s rebirth, Adolf Hitler flew once again to Nuremberg to hold a military display.

Compare this to the superimposed titles which precede the narrative in Aguirre, The Wrath of God which read:

After the conquest and plundering of the Inca Empire by Spain, the Indians invented the legend of El Dorado, a land of gold, located in the swamps of the Amazon headwaters. A large expedition of Spanish adventurers, led by Gonzalo Pizzaro, set off from the Peruvian highlands in late 1560.

The textual allusion suggests Herzog’s Lope de Aguirre is a picture of Hitler (who was, in turn, a picture of the historical Lope de Aguirre): the two each lead a maniacal, ill-fated conquest in the name of nationalism and eugenics, and a god-like descent from the clouds begins their unfulfilled quests. A heavy irony is at play in the Aguirre text; what at first seems a reversal of fortunes (Riefenstahl’s propaganda piece promises a Phoenician rise from the ashes while Herzog presupposes failure), the textual prologue comments not only on the inevitable fall of Nazism, but of the current state of affairs. A 1965 version of the Riefenstahl prologue could read, “20 years after the end of the Second World War, 16 years after the formation of the FRG, former Nazi Kurt Georg Kiesinger is elected to Hitler’s former position of Chancellor after a brief stint with the Christian Democratic Union.” A history of savage cultural violence continues in the name of the Lord.

This is why the landscape in Aguirre, The Wrath of God knows nothing of the Christian faith: the marriage of Christianity, colonialism and technological hubris reappear in First World politics in the age of the New German Cinema. And like the futile attempt by the conquistadors to hoist their cannon from the mud—and the secondary regard for human life in Carvajal’s lip service to his comrades’ “souls [resting] much better in consecrated ground”—shades of neocolonialism (Françafrique, the Belgian Congo, U.S. occupation in Vietnam) sprouted up despite the 600-year history of colonialism coming to an end. The earth is in a battle with human civilization in Herzog’s philosophy (generally) and in Aguirre, The Wrath of God (specifically), but their relationship isn’t dichotomous. 

Herzog, himself, deplores the vulgarity of nature in his Fitzcarraldo production journal writing, “The jungle is obscene. Everything about it is sinful, for which reason the sin does not stand out as sin” (Conquest 105). That is to say, from the other side of the prism, landscape disacknowledges man’s moral constructs. That’s why beauty coexists with the treacherous in Aguirre, The Wrath of God: a butterfly lands on the finger of an Indian slave as bodies starve on a raft; a flowering tree thrives despite floodwaters rising deep into the jungle. At the height of Aguirre’s madness, an extended take captures the glistening sun reflecting off the surface of the river; El Dorado was there all along. 

The ways of the Old World expire with Aguirre’s men at the end of 1560 (as Hitler’s madness grew desperate at the close of 1944). The new year brings the promise of a New World, indifferent to the former’s antiquated logic. Herzog’s authorial imploration warns that, contrary to Aguirre’s concept of progress, it is human civilization’s barbarism which is cyclical. Detached, nature marches on.

Nicolas Winding Refn, a 21st-Century auteur, exemplifies David Bordwell’s insight that “the condition of belatedness is probably most visible in our movies’ constant allusionism,” but Valhalla Rising, deliberately Refn’s most challenging work, digests its influences to recontextualize Herzog’s juxtaposition of landscape and power (The Way 24). As Aguirre, The Wrath of God references The Triumph of the Will as the fall is predicated in Hitler’s mythic rise, the titular “rising” in Refn’s work references the mythology in experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle.

Valhalla Rising’s protagonist, the neither heroic nor anti-heroic One Eye, is ascribed the same moral ambiguity as Anger’s Lucifer in Lucifer Rising. Lucifer represents not, in the Anger text, the binary opposition to the Christian God, but a prefiguring of the Aeon of Horus, a mythical concept in the counter-cultural religion of Thelema founded by famed occultist Aleister Crowley. Here, self-actualization replaces civilization’s previous colonial epoch in which “the Universe was imagined as catastrophic; love, death, resurrection, as the method by which experience was built up; this corresponds to patriarchal systems” (Crowley 16). The vilification of Crowley’s philosophy by the dominant, binary Christian culture speaks more about the truth of this statement than Crowley’s own esoteric dogma; Anger crowns Lucifer—the lord of light—as an autonomous myth and christens him through the medium of light, “[Anger’s] camera a ceremonial instrument of invocation” (Brottman 6).

Just as landscape in Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Lucifer in Lucifer Rising refuse to be categorized in the Christian/heathen dichotomy, One Eye—neither pagan or Christian in a binary world—is the product of new myth combining “a divine portent that reveals the will or judgment of God or the gods” (Vican 157). The wrath of God. Refn alludes to both Herzog’s and Anger’s imagery throughout Valhalla Rising not as mere accolade but in defiance of neocolonial hegemony choking out filmic mythmaking. 

Jarring, discontinuous edits into One Eye’s hallucinatory premonitions are stylized, presenting a mirrored double-image of One Eye (reminiscent of Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome) colored a non-diegetic red (as in Anger’s stylistic function of casting red light onto characters faces in Lucifer Rising). Yet, these monstrous dreams are the only correct forethought in the narrative suggesting truth is found outside the established myth. One Eye’s muteness, like his monocular vision, hearkens to Herzog’s use of silence and is not treated as lack: the film’s sparse dialogue paints those who speak as philosophically adrift (in the land of the blind…). The myth of One Eye empowers the weak on a narrative level and his incongruous presence in the colonial world is mirrored by the film’s formal presentation of him.

Unlike Lope de Aguirre, One Eye is an extension of his landscape. The prologue of superimposed text reads, “In the beginning there was only man and nature,” and One Eye precedes the wrongheadedness of both pagan and colonial tracks. The film opens with the same mountainous clouds as Aguirre, but One Eye is a slave inside a cage much like the one in which Aguirre imprisons his detractors. The Nordic world of Valhalla Rising is imposing and wary: any distance is obscured by mist and cinematography denies us any horizon for bearings. Further disconcerting, the combination of mist and (presumed) northerly latitude prevents true nightfall; time, like space, is disorienting as shades of diffused grey are all that separates day from night in their surreal world.

Physical disorientation becomes a narrative device as One Eye boards a ship of Vikings en route to the Holy Land. The fog intensifies such that water and air are indistinguishable from one another and the camera pans 360-degrees capturing the claustrophobia of the entire ship. Nature creates a Beckettian void as the voyagers are trapped in a fog with no wind, no current, and no concept of time. Refn robs his characters of the journaling plot device in Aguirre, The Wrath of God; Herzog’s conquistadors measure out their demise daily, Refn’s Vikings are unsure of their very existence on their voyage to the New World.

If religion plays like a condoning afterthought for colonial violence in Aguirre, the sincere devotion of the Vikings in Valhalla Rising is all the more frightening. They view their misfortune on the open water as a curse which must be rectified biblically. Inferring both Jonah’s defiant trip to Tarshish and young Isaac on Mount Moriah, the Vikings turn to One Eye’s mouthpiece, a young pagan boy, with intent to throw him overboard. 

Violence perpetrated by the Christians is connected, in worldview, to the violence of the pagans. When One Eye overpowers a ravenous chieftain and slave owner, the pagan man warns before his disembowelment, “When I die, you will go back to hell.” For the pagan in Valhalla Rising, the end of one’s corporeality is the end of all existence. The Christians counter with startling violence, single-minded in its monotheistic resolve, to convince surviving pagans of the error of their theology. Worldview is negotiated through cruelty as the Viking crusaders leave newly conquered pagan women to huddle, naked and shivering, in an unforgiving landscape warmed only by a burning pyre of their men.

This cruelty holds little currency in the New World as landscape represents, just as it does in Aguirre, The Wrath of God, the unknown. As in Aguirre, primitive arrows strike sailing Vikings from an unseen assailant as if their enemy was an anthropomorphized earth. The film suggests the Christian tenet of subduing the earth only ever translated to human oppression; their successful brutality against the Nordic pagans stands in stark contrast to their empty religious symbols in the New World. “God brought us out of that mist for a reason. We claim this land in His name,” orders The General, approaching Aguirrian madness. “How do we do that?” replies one of his warriors, “We’re half-starved, three men dead, one missing.” 

The dialogue-free, highly-stylized and discontinuous slow-motion sequence that follows depicts how these lost souls try to spiritually subdue the earth which they don’t realize has immobilized them. The cinematography of landscape in close-up rather than long shot psychologically allegorizes indifferent spiritual void rather than its usual role of proportional chastening. One Viking kneels at the water to pray, but his only answer is his shadowed face staring back at him; another meditates upon his own death as he stares into the impenetrable woods. The more savage members of the warband try to anthropomorphize their “man vs. nature” demise through Old World violence and penetration. 

One Viking claws at the muddy soil, succumbing to the realization that his grasp can’t contain something simultaneously grand and amorphous; another stabs at the surface of the water with two daggers—as if in face-to-face battle with the other realm—before floating lifeless, face down, in a crucifix position. A third transposes his violence onto a victim he knows he can conquer, overpowering a weaker warrior, raping him and forcing his face into the consuming mud.

One Eye, the film’s intercessor between nature and civilization, accepts his demise and his spiritual act in this sequence is one of respect. One Eye constructs a rock cairn—not without struggle, for the earth refuses to be subdued and the cairn topples multiple times—which foreshadows his personal sacrifice in memorial as well as it signifies his distinction from Christian myth. Just as the stone cairn can represent ceremonial, commemorative and spiritual connection between earth and man in ancient Native American cultures, One Eye recognizes upon his entrance into the New World the error of his compatriots’ philosophy of subjugation. In a sequence rife with violent phallic imagery, the cairn is the one instance which suggests the fertility of a myth devoid of Christian influence. Landscape is beguiling in the New World because the Vikings entered it pretextually.

Refn’s use of landscape, then, plays a role of dual evocation. Valhalla Rising wears its influences on its sleeve for, in addition to the aforementioned allusion to Aguirre, The Wrath of God and the films of Kenneth Anger, Refn also references Jodorowsky’s El Topo and Tarkovsky’s Stalker as the film’s spiritual predecessors (“Valhalla Rising”). Both of these films present barren, yet timeless, landscapes which allegorize the failure of imperialist zeitgeist (the lifeless Mexican desert bemoans Spanish colonialism in the former, Estonian wasteland lies in the shadow of the Soviet Union’s communist gulags in the latter). Yet, despite the landscape allusion Refn employs, Valhalla Rising is distinct much like Aguirre, The Wrath of God—in that his New World is inhospitable but never barren.  Stranger still, the Vikings intended to set sail for Jerusalem, a landscape of scorching sun and hostile desert. Perhaps Refn is suggesting, through his use of landscape and allusion to films of allegorical wasteland, spent earth is what colonialists desire because it is the natural outcome of their theology. 

One Eye carries The Boy on his back up a mountain (again referencing El Topo) to sacrifice. But unlike the biblical account of Abraham and Isaac, it is One Eye who sacrifices himself to save The Boy from the sins of the Vikings. This inversion of Christian myth through use of film allusion complements Refn’s philosophy in regard to the film’s landscape. Refn says, “I became obsessed with this kind of remoteness and how far could I go into the mountains,” and the film feels otherworldly despite its earthly theme (Indrisek). The landscape is both virginal and foreboding, historically and cinematographically. The unblemished Scottish locale is home to both the scenes of Christian encroachment upon the Norse pagans and to the North America which, the film extrapolates, the same crusaders commit genocide against indigenous peoples. We know the ideology will begat a wasteland but, here, it is anew: One Eye’s sacrifice creates an alternate history which suggests new myth while its purity of landscape amid recontextualized allusion suggests film is the new cultural mythmaking.

Herzog’s treatment of Lope de Aguirre as mad hero in a traditionally antiheroic tale and Refn’s inversion of biblical symbols aren’t a subversion of colonial myth but of mythmaking. Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Valhalla Rising both explore the failure of colonization to force cultural assimilation on the New World. The ideological antiquity of the conquistadors and Vikings may suggest that paternalistic human nature is cyclical, but it is these historical victors who lose in the narratives. The ideology of imperialism stunts cultural mythmaking, forcing human history to tumble through similar cycles of brutality; Herzog and Refn suggest film is an antidote. 

These films avoid a defeatist attitude because the very process of filmmaking establishes a language of new cultural ideologies. The conventions of art-cinema employed by Herzog and Refn (intertextual allusion, discontinuity editing, the self-reflexivity of breaking the fourth wall) suggest that film is the new cultural myth. Herzog has repeatedly declared, with only minimal facetiousness, “Film … is not the art of scholars but of illiterates,” which isn’t far from equating the ivory tower of academic elitism with paternalism and barbarism (Herzog On 70). The new myths of our cinema will not be forced ideologies marched down the Andes. They are, like our history, pastiche of stolen and reappropriated images, egalitarian in tone. Landscape in these films mirrors the landscape of cinema: unfettered, rife with possibility, and dangerous when subdued. Communal mythology is rewritten through film; the New World is not conquered, but inexhaustible.


Works Cited

Anaya, S. James. Indigenous Peoples in International Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. Bekeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Brottman, Mikita. “Force and Fire.” Moonchild: The Films of Kenneth Anger. Ed. Jack Hunter. London: Creation Books, 2002. 5-10.

Crowley, Aleister and Rose Edith Crowley. The Book of the Law: Liber Al Vel Legis. 1904. Reprint. Boston: Red Wheel Weiser, 2004.

Herzog, Werner. Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo. Trans. Krishna Winston. New York: Ecco, 2009.

Herzog, Werner, and Paul Cronin. Herzog on Herzog. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.

Indrisek, Scott. “‘Valhalla Rising’: A Q&A with Filmmaker Nicolas Refn.” BlouinArtInfo. Louise Blouin Media, 2010. Web. 18 Jun. 2015.

Kirschner, Teresa J. and Enrique Manchón. “Lope de Aguirre como signo politico polivalente.” Revista canadiense de studios hispànicos 18.3 (1994): 405-416.

Knight, Julia. Women and the New German Cinema. London: Verso. 1992.

Melbye, David. Landscape Allegory in Cinema: From Wilderness to Wasteland. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

“Valhalla Rising: The Making-Of” (supplementary material on DVD release of Valhalla Rising). 2009. DVD. MPI Media Group, 2010.

Vican, Justin. Nicolas Winding Refn and the Violence of Art: A Critical Study of the Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. 2014.

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