Over the last two evenings I’ve watched two very different DVDs lent to me by Tom, Aquirre, the Wrath of God and Sense and Sensibility. Aquirre leads a group of conquistadors and slaves down the Amazon looking for El Dorado. Very minimalist the film portrays madness and folly amidst the lush and unforgiving jungle and its Indian inhabitants.
The other film, based on Jane Austen’s first published novel, is a direct contrast. It is the Cinderella theme; Elinor and Marianne, two sisters in reduced circumstances, experience romance and heartbreak before the inevitable happy ending. Austen’s novels end in wedding bells. So does the film. Along the way there is the debate between sense (logic) and sensibility (emotion).
During the 1970s two German film-makers, Fassbinder and Herzog established reputations as great directors. When I saw them I found Fassbinder intriguing but I never warmed to Herzog. When I first saw Aquirre (one of his films) I thought it far-fetched romantic twaddle while his much acclaimed Fitzcarroldo left me cold. At the time I thought the fault was mine.
So it was with interest that I looked at Aquirre again. I appreciated the camera work more, great shots of the Amazon headwaters and jungle. But I did not respond to the story or to the actors. I can appreciate the lust for gold driving men crazy. But the actions, especially of the hero actor Kinski, arising from the story-line were still not credible to me.
I’ve finished reading Wilson’s The Thirty Year’s War. In his summing up of the consequences he wrote about how Schiller the great German romantic poet and playwright had used events from the war to portray attitudes towards death, desolation and alienation. There is a strand here that leads to Wagner, Nietzsche and Hitler that is rather foreign to my nature. I am not an outsider.
Around the time Schiller was writing Austen was penning her novels in England. They in their understated way are as far-removed from the works of the nihilistic German playwright as is possible. The cinematic contrast between the ordered English countryside and the uncontrolled jungle is striking, reflecting two different world-views.
I’m not, I hope, making value judgements about cultures. There are strands of both approaches in New Zealand. But in my case it is an acceptance of a fact that my being has been shaped by the English lens that backgrounded and educated me. I am at home and at ease in Jane Austen.
The scene when Elinor realises that she has been misinformed, that Edward Farrar is not married and is indeed free is one of those marvellous film moments. It had me close to tears. Whereas Aquirre, his daughter killed and his men all dead, maniacally raving alone on a mid-stream raft with only monkeys for company left me uninvolved and shrugging ‘so what’. Still, I’m pleased to have seen the film again. It’s good to know that what I sensed over thirty years ago is still valid. And I must re-read the Austen.