A repetition of repetitions


Wonderful piece in The Weeklings on the early films of Werner Herzog.

But, if repetition is essential to Herzog’s storytelling, it’s also an essential part of those stories. Herzog’s worlds are built around an individual’s repetitiousness and the effects it has on them and those around them. Much as the aesthetic value of repetition is nonexistent, there are no inherent qualities belonging to characters engaged in repetition. Instead, as one can see by looking at Herzog’s early films, repetition can be understood as a sort of tipping point that can be constructive or destructive in nature—and paradoxically, sometimes both.


Repetition is paramount to the success of Aguirre – both man and movie. Shot after shot of the jungle from the raft, ambiguous as to whether or not they are distinct recordings of the rainforest or simply the same cut used multiple times, emphasize the madness that awaits excessive, monotonous repetition. Equally monotonous are the characters’ lives on the raft. They slowly creep down the Amazon, occasionally eating what little food remains, claiming everything they see as part of their new kingdom. Indeed, the only punctuations of this life adrift are repetitions of death, both the not-infrequent attacks by the natives and the increasingly odd deaths of key crew members – the hanging of the overthrown captain, his wife sacrificing herself to cannibals, the only horse on the trip being thrown overboard. In conjunction with Aguirre’s single-minded pursuit of El Dorado, it’s easy to see repetition’s destructive force, especially when deployed for a viceful end as it is in the mutineers’ greed. However, in urging his weary men on, Aguirre frequently invokes the name of Hérnan Cortés, reminding them that great explorers must take great risks and overcome the hardships they face—both mental and physical. And it is indeed true — Cortés and Aguirre share the same motivation and dedication. In the end though, Aguirre reminds us that those who give themselves completely to any cause are not guaranteed success. Far from it. For every Cortez, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Aguirres.

If Aguirre is a warning about the destructive nature of repetition with a footnote about its possibilities, Fitzcarraldo is just the opposite. An opera lover, Fizcaraldo’s passion for music borders on the insane. He too sets out on a boat (his steam powered) with a crew of locals to find a piece of rainforest and harvest its rubber to raise money to build an opera house. Unbeknownst to the crew, Fitzcarraldo’s plan involves hauling the boat over a mountain, and in the process much of the crew abandons him due to their fear of being attacked by natives. Eventually the natives surround the boat, but, impressed by both his ship and the opera he plays, they believe Fitzcarraldo to be a god, and they carry the ship over the mountain. After a night of celebration, however, their leader cuts the ship loose to appease the rapids that had made the area inaccessible in the first place. The boat and its crew miraculously emerge intact — but empty-handed. Fitzcarraldo sells the steamer to a local rubber baron and takes it for one last journey, returning with an opera company he’s hired using the money from the sale. They pull into port, and the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso belts “A Te O Cara, Amor Talora.”