Lawrence, Aguirre, and the American Imperial Moment

Peter O’Toole, Oscar-Winning Hollywood Blockbusters, Battle-Hardened Warrior Chieftains, The Great Man Theory of History, Tim Russert, A Thousand-Year Reich, Themistocles, Maurice Jarre, Lawrence the Anthropologist, The Sun’s Anvil, Popol Vuh, Klaus Kinski, Baby Mice, The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, Seven Thousand Neutered Rats

Lawrence, Aguirre, and the American Imperial Moment

Jim Shepard
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By the third scene of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, its hero, a radiant and impossibly blue-eyed Peter O’Toole, has already begun to enjoy his precocious and nearly inexplicable success at something he spends the 1962 movie’s three and a half hours doing: talking people into accepting his version of the world, a version which, on the face of it, seems absurd and untenable. Lean’s Lawrence—which, in the grand tradition of Oscar-winning Hollywood blockbusters, takes a few liberties with the historical record—is, when we first encounter him, a minor staff functionary whose main attribute seems to be an odd intensity, an intensity deployed with uncanny effectiveness to convert to his geopolitical vision spectacularly skeptical, xenophobic, and battle-hardened warrior chieftains from an entirely foreign culture.

How does he do it? That’s of course part of what we, the audience, are meant to be pleasurably wondering. We’re given a few clues—O’Toole is at that point in his life probably the most beautiful man on the face of the earth, after all—but scene after scene seems constructed to communicate to us that the main reason he’s so persuasive is that he’s just so sure. Over and over again, the movie stages scenes of British or Arabic befuddlement at Lawrence’s disconcerting sincerity.

Twenty minutes into a two-hundred-and-sixteen-minute pageant dedicated to supporting the Great Man theory of history, we find Lawrence in the Arabian desert, having talked his bemused superiors into letting him have a go at winning over various tribes of legendary wariness and recalcitrance to the cause of the British Empire. We see him beginning the process of doing so not by the logic of his argumentation but through the force of his personality. Arab after Arab is converted not by what he says but by who he is. And who is he? He is someone who, when all others would lose faith in themselves, refuses to lose faith in himself.


Lawrence’s plan—Lawrence’s vision—is, we’re assured by all the experts with whom he comes into contact, somewhere between quixotic and certifiably insane. But then—as our current American president suggested to interviewer Tim Russert during his appearance on Meet the Press this past February 8th, mostly through the amiable inflexibility with which his assurance steamrolled any doubt created by the growing numbers of contradictory facts—part of what it means to have an indefatigably imperial vision of one’s place in the world, of course, is to have a somewhat vexed relationship with what the rest of us call reality.

That’s what makes for visionary leaders, whether they’re the sort that attempt to construct an pan-Arabic alliance behind a British agenda, or a thousand-year Reich.

Lawrence’s superior officer remarks about his insouciant insubordination—his way of behaving as though he has no superior officers—“I can’t make out whether you’re bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted.” “I have the same problem, sir,” Lawrence replies. When asked how on earth he’s going to pull off the impossible, given that he doesn’t even seem able to perform his basic duties as a staff functionary, he answers, “I cannot fiddle, but I can make a great state of a small city.” The quote’s from Themistocles, he points out helpfully. For Lawrence, as for our current president, his lack of aptitude for nearly everything is part of what’s convinced him of his greatness: he clearly wasn’t made for ordinary tasks. So perhaps he was made for extraordinary tasks.

Off Lawrence goes into the desert, with his camel and his initially skeptical Bedouin guide, two little dots against the 70mm wide-screen immensity of the Arabian desert, creeping along as if huddled together under the crashing grandeur of Maurice Jarre’s famous theme music/score. It takes him three minutes of screen time to convert the guide completely.

On a camel in heroic medium shot, he’s told that here he may drink. But when he sees that his guide is not drinking, he resolves to drink only when the Bedouin does. Making camp, the Bedouin asks incredulously,“Truly: you are a British officer?”And then he asks if Britain is a desert country. No, Lawrence tells him. A fat country. “And you are not fat?” the Bedouin asks. “No,” Lawrence says simply. “I’m different.”

By the time that sequence is over, even the dimmest sort of filmgoer knows what kind of genre he’s in. He’s in the land of Epic Adventure. Part of the reason Maurice Jarre’s score won the Academy Award, and has become the gold standard for film composers for communicating Epic Grandeur, is its success at signaling viscerally not only majesty, but majesty put to use; majesty mastered. It’s all about not only the exhilarating pleasures of exploration, but of imperial exploration.

What’s the agenda behind a movie like Lawrence of Arabia? Why was Lawrence such a great guy, according to such movies? Why do we like him?

Partly because of where he took us and because of what he showed us. Lawrence and his movie tell us in the grandest possible way: stick with us and we’ll give you the kind of stunning eye candy that only the movies can deliver. And: stick with us and you’ll be learning something about other cultures and places. But of course, there’s a difference between Lawrence and an anthropologist. David Lean wouldn’t have made a dime with a movie called Lawrence the Anthropologist. We love Lawrence not only because he took us somewhere, but also because when he did, he allowed us to enact the pleasure of gaining mastery over it. While we watch, fiercely recalcitrant Arabs fall in line. Mostly unlikable Turks die. Skeptical British officers look on with growing admiration. And the implacable, unconquerable desert is continually maneuvered, and vanquished. (No one can cross a particularly fearsome stretch called the Sun’s Anvil, we’re told by the Bedouins. Lawrence does it twice.)


Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, made ten years later, in 1972, seems very much to be in conversation with David Lean’s movie. Once again we open with otherworldly beauty, and an otherworldly sense of scale. Following some intertitles explaining that after the plundering of the Incan Empire by Spain, the Indians invented the legend of El Dorado, the land of gold, and that in 1560 an expedition led initially by Pizarro set off after it, we’re confronted with an extreme long shot of a tiny line of figures making their way along an impossibly sheer track leading down through the clouds. But we’ve already been flatly informed that this imperial adventuring is harder to euphemize (they’re after gold, and that’s all there is to it), and the music cueing our appetite for what’s coming couldn’t be more different. Instead of orchestral triumphalism we’re getting the unsettling weirdness of Popol Vuh: a band consisting mostly of a single German musician named Florian Fricke recording and overlaying mournful parallel tracks of recorded voices and electronic organ. The effect is instantly haunting and elegiac: the opposite of the boys-in-the-barracks sort of rouser we’d expect to begin an Epic Adventure. It’s as though things have already gone, or could only go, south from here.As though the sadness of all that’s going to flow from this undertaking is already built in.

We watch, stupefied, at the hubristic lunacy of this as an undertaking. The endlessly Sisyphean nature of such a trek is brought home to us when the conquistadors come climbing unexpectedly back up into the immediate foreground of the frame. Oh, god, the viewer thinks: they’re not just going down this impossible cliff; they’re going up and down many such cliffs.

They’re dragging along in their wake the entire iconography of the Spanish conquest, an iconography which becomes more surreal as it parades past the camera: halberds; rifles; a noblewoman’s chair, on a litter (the framework that supports a chair); the lady herself, dressed pristinely, as if back in Castile; cannon wheels; the Virgin Mary. And finally, the always-arresting Klaus Kinski as Aguirre, instantly identifiable—through his malevolent wariness and preemptory stage-managing of the marching order—as balefully monomaniacal.

And when it comes to a subject like the balefully monomaniacal, you’re not going to find a filmmaker more qualified than Werner Herzog.

Herzog has always been the sort of guy whom, if you’re a film critic, you might call a maverick, and if you’re a district attorney, you might call a criminal.When he was fourteen he sent ideas for film projects to German producers, who thought at one point that they had a real deal working, until they met their director face-to-face. It’s a measure of his monomania that he was surprised that they were upset. Since no one was willing to fund him at the age of fourteen, he went back to high school and worked nights as a welder to fund the production of shorts he then sent around to festivals. The shorts won prizes, but no money, which meant he still couldn’t afford a 35mm camera, so he stole one from a film school in Munich. Aguirre was shot with it. He said by way of explanation that he didn’t consider what he’d done theft; he considered it necessity. He had a natural right to a camera.

Cinematically, what’s immediately most striking about Herzog’s style is the startling and continually unstable divide between the obviously stylized and what looks like an obsessive commitment to realism. Aguirre, like the rest of his movies, alternates between a sloppy chaos that feels documentary-like and highly stylized still-lifes. Cinema-vérité stuff—like bumping around on a pitching raft on a choppy and rainswept river, spray spotting the lens—is juxtaposed with the weirdly aestheticized and the startlingly static: long takes of telephoto shots of roiling rapids. Baby mice rooting around at the bottom of an overlooked nest.

Probably unsurprisingly, Herzog has always made both documentaries and fiction films, and sometimes it’s been a little hard to tell the difference. Anyone who’s seen one of his movies knows how weird his basic strategy for movie-making really is: he’s mostly interested in rendering mysterious internal emotional states. And he’s mostly interested in getting at those states through the visual contemplation of something else. What’s going on in Aguirre’s head, or the Spaniards’ heads? What’s it like to be them? He tries to show us by showing us what they’re looking at. Or, more precisely: how they’re seeing.

Sometimes that impulse seems to require realism (here we are on the raft, shoulder-to-shoulder with our compatriots, bumping around and getting wet); sometimes it seems to require something else: some version of expressionism (here we are gazing at the washing-machine turmoil of one small area of rapids for a full twenty seconds).

The difference between realism and expressionism, in epistemological terms, is usually summarized colloquially as follows: the world as it is vs. the world as someone sees it. Herzog’s movies and style are all about fuzzing that border. Partially because the monomaniacs who interest him are always fuzzing the border themselves, in order to remake their worlds.


From the very beginning, even Herzog’s documentaries were concerned with the internal and the ineffable: what couldn’t be recorded on film. That’s part of what won him so much attention. He made a documentary called Land of Silence and Darkness about a blind and deaf woman, and in that documentary attempted to recreate her way of experiencing the world. Think about that: in movies you have two things to work with, essentially: the visual image, and sound. Herzog decided he wanted to use the visual image and sound to get at what it’s like to be blind and deaf. (Does it work? Well, that’s the subject of another essay.) In another documentary, The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, he described his main agenda as the rendering of a ski jumper’s sensation of weightlessness. In one called La Soufrière, he tried to document not a volcanic catastrophe but the anticipation of one: the experience of feeling as though you’re about to experience one.

That sort of dedication to expressionistic concerns helped form a bridge between Herzog’s work and the first great golden age of German filmmaking in the teens and twenties. In fact, his movies not only recalled those movies, they sometimes remade them, as in the case of his reiteration of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.

And he himself is an expressionist figure.This is a guy who said about his home, a farm in a remote part of Bavaria, that he remembered “only a deep ravine and a mystical waterfall.” A guy who described one of his movies as being about a chicken in a cardboard box. And then he added, “Chickens terrify me. I’m the first person to have shown that chickens are horrifying.”

This is a guy who believed sufficiently in the power of will that in 1974, when the great German film critic Lotte Eisner was said to be dying in Paris, he set off on foot from Munich to visit her—not only, he said, to pay tribute to her, but to prevent her death. She survived until after his arrival.

Given his tendency to act as though the world would accommodate itself to someone of sufficient will, we’re not surprised to learn that the stories behind the making of his movies are often as amazing as the movies themselves. Those stories are usually characterized by his taking a cast and crew somewhere no one believed a cast and crew could go, with almost no resources and on the basis of mostly chutzpah alone. Which makes, of course, the story of Aguirre the story of Herzog. Which helps explain the intensity of the ambivalence with which Aguirre is viewed.

Herzog’s film crews have been lost in Saharan sandstorms, stranded by African floods, beaten in Greek and Turkish jails, and nearly drowned in Irish seas. Even in countries as innocuous as Holland his shoots have been harrowing for all involved. Shooting Nosferatu in a little town outside of Rotterdam, he let loose on his cast and the somewhat surprised locals seven thousand rats, which swarmed over actors, passersby, and gawkers, outnumbered rat wranglers, and then disappeared all over town. He later complained, after the uproar, that he didn’t know what everyone was so angry about. He’d had the rats neutered.


Naturally, then, filming Aguirre involved talking four hundred and fifty cast and crew members into essentially recreating some of the most dangerous parts of the historical Aguirre’s expedition: climbing down the Andes and then through some of the most inhospitable jungle in the world. (For those opening shots from the precipitous sides of the cliffs, Herzog had to hang from tree branches, because Thomas Mauch, the cinematographer, refused to do it.) They had a total budget of $360,000, an eight-man crew, and a five-week shooting schedule. In other words, no resources and no time. For the scenes on the river they built two makeshift rafts to follow the characters’ rafts. The company slept in hammocks and on planks when ashore, but for two of the five weeks they were unable to go ashore because of the flooded jungle. One raft got caught in a whirlpool and started to disintegrate.That’s in the movie. As Herzog put it,“That was very unpleasant for the people on board.”

They had only the one camera he’d stolen, and everything flowed one way on the river, which meant that there’d be no retakes at particular landmarks or points of interest. It also meant that whatever happened, he tried to use it. When one night the river rose fifteen feet and swept their rafts away, Herzog announced that the same misfortune had befallen Aguirre’s men, and demanded that they start building replacement rafts when he resumed filming the next day. He announced himself King of the Jungle for the duration. (Since he was forced to shoot chronologically, his rule about secondary cast members was this: the biggest troublemakers in camp the previous evening were the first to be killed the following day, and sent home.)

The biggest troublemaker on that set or maybe any other was the mostly demented Klaus Kinski, who played the lead, and who so shared his character’s enraged sense of entitlement when it came to remaking the world that he was stopped by crew members at one point when emptying his rifle at the extras. (He shot the tip off someone’s finger.) His boss was equally preemptory when it came to challenges to his authority. When asked if it was true that he only kept Kinski from leaving at one point by holding a gun on him, Herzog answered, “Those stories are exaggerated. The gun was back in my tent. I only told him I’d shoot him. But he knew I was serious.”


All of which brings us back to Lawrence and his certainty about his role in remaking the world. Aguirre is designed in some way as an explicit critique of that monomania, as seen from the inside. Having been sent on an exploratory foray by Pizarro, Aguirre immediately mutinies, shooting the commander Pizarro appointed and demanding his men’s fealty. They fall into line partly because of his murderousness and partly because he just seems so sure of what he’s doing. The city of gold does exist, they should go after it, and it’s definitely in this direction. His logic is himself. His evidence is himself. He gazes at doubters until the doubters waver. He knows. Do they know? Even Aguirre’s way of moving embodies his radical inflexibility: Herzog strapped Kinski up in criss-crossing leather harnesses, leaving him bizarrely tilted and stiff, and then directed him to move only like a crab, sideways, and in spirals whenever possible. Our current president, when asked about the absence of weapons of mass destruction that he’d said he had no doubt were present in Iraq, found the question in some ways irrelevant. He answered it, in that same Meet the Press, this way:

And that’s very important for, I think, people to understand where I’m coming from. To know that this is a dangerous world. I wish it wasn’t. I’m a war president. I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign-policy matters with war on my mind.Again, I wish it wasn’t true, but it is true. And the American people need to know they got a president who sees the world the way it is. And I see dangers that exist, and it’s important for us to deal with them.

This is not an unusual concept for a man of faith: what’s real is not what you can touch and see.What’s real is what you believe. David Kay and Colin Powell might be dismayed by their inability to touch or see the promised weapons that justified an invasion. Their president isn’t. He knows what the truth is. The truth is whatever it is he wants. If the facts don’t coincide with that truth, well, then, at some point, another set of facts probably will. This is something Americans like about their current president: he says what he believes and he sticks to it.

So: remaking the world requires a new way of seeing, and continuing to see, the world.

For a lot of casual filmgoers, the visual style of a movie like Aguirre is itself high-handed and perverse.

When we’re forced to peer for a full twenty seconds at a telephoto shot of a small stretch of roiling rapids, we’re increasingly aware that what we’re looking at is devoid of what we’d consider either sufficient human or narrative interest. We think we’ve grasped what significance there is to the shot—rapids, right—and then we don’t move on.

But Herzog, like Aguirre, and like Lawrence, doesn’t care what lesser men (read: just about everyone else) tell him he can or can’t do. As far as he’s concerned, a radical set of objectives necessitates a radical strategy. And he wants something strange to be happening to narrative at moments like that. Because a movie about monomania is a movie about what special figures know, or think they know, not what ordinary people would register. Such filmmaking is mesmeric by design. It mesmerizes us the way the monomaniac mesmerizes himself. Herzog said about La Soufrière, his documentary about the anticipation of the volcanic eruption, that “never before were signals of such magnitude recorded with nothing happening.” Signals of such magnitude recorded with nothing happening: it’s not a bad description of the way Lawrence first experienced the desert. Or the way our current president has experienced Iraq.


There’s a scene late in Aguirre: The Wrath of God in which the one miserable horse that they’ve brought along on the raft, ostensibly to shock and awe whatever natives they encounter downstream, finally rebels and starts breaking the raft to pieces. They put it ashore, and shove off, and Herzog holds on a long take of the now-quiet horse, standing on the edge of the bank, surrounded by impenetrable jungle, steadily watching the people who brought him there—and us— grow farther and farther away. As an image, it’s a wonderfully evocative and forlorn critique of the imperial project: those who did the heavy lifting are left behind in God knows where. Next case.


Later in the movie, those remaining, still floating downstream, are at the end of their tether.The camera records a hallucinatory reality on the riverbank—a large ship, one hundred feet up in a tree—without trying to settle or help us negotiate the issue of its existence. What are we supposed to make of it, when we see it? Is it a fever hallucination? One that we all share? That’s what this whole project has been. Monomaniacs like Aguirre are, finally, pretending, though pretending on a deep level. At moments like that we’re forced to ask ourselves, as filmgoers: at what level is the pretending operating? Questions like that can take on a national significance, as well. Questions like that are among the most urgent ones we can ask about our governments’ foreign and domestic policies.

Aguirre ends with its protagonist stalking around his nearly empty raft, lording over some terrified monkeys. He holds one petrified little monkey in his hand and proclaims himself the Wrath of God before pitching it into the river. He then restates who he is and what he seeks. He finishes by saying, “Who goes with me?” And Herzog provides his answer visually, in the next shot: the sun, blinding us, and burning itself into the lens. ✯

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