Humboldt and the cinema A return journey

Cinema poster from 1972 for the film "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" with Klaus Kinski in the leading role
Cinema poster from 1972 for the film "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" with Klaus Kinski in the leading role | Photo (detail): Courtesy Everett Collection © picture alliance / Everett Collection

Forms of colonial representation are still influencing the way in which we envisage and present ourselves. But they have also opened up an opportunity for a rift, a collision, a conflict with this hard-to-grasp concept of identity.

By Diana Bustamante

A journey means: being on the way somewhere, new encounters and the opportunity to understand other points of view. And the complex interaction between Nature and the way in which people live in it, inhabit it, influence it, change it, is laid bare in the landscape. These principles taken as a whole lead to a conclusion that’s a recurrent theme throughout the travel diaries of Alexander von Humboldt, especially the Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. In this work, the one on which he spent the most time, the German scientist sets out a new definition of America, the American territory and American identity. Although it placed him in a constant situation of conflict with regard to the institutions of power and their approach, he was however aware of their necessary presence as provider of funds for scientific and cultural development.
 
On the occasion of the 250th birthday of the German scientist and philosopher, the Goethe-Institut commissioned two curators to compile a special programme of films looking at his character and ideas.

Looking in a convex mirror

So Stephan Ahrens from Germany and I, with our different perspectives, embarked on the shared task of filtering out baselines so that we could build a bridge between Humboldt’s records and the cinema. Travel and the quest for beauty; the landscape as a living reality in a state of change; people and cultures as a constitutive and transformative component of landscape and environment – these were some of the lines we looked at, which resulted in a programme that was diverse in both content and form. Of the eleven selected works, four of them were particularly focused on a return journey, looking in a convex mirror, which deconstructs both perspective and discussion and throws them back together in a new order.
 
Travel was and is a constant motivator for cinema. Many film-makers have portrayed the Latin-American territories and Latin-American identity using visuals that overlap with the records of Humboldt and other travellers of that era at many levels and constitute a common way of thinking. Humboldt’s travel in the epoch of “discoveries” was the reappraisal of a continent that although colonised was not yet “discovered”. The German scientist’s undertaking threw his own motives into question, because he was coming across ideas and debates that stood in contradiction to the way the Spanish crown – the project’s sponsor – behaved towards the American territory. So his travels were packed full of dichotomies, a journey – as he saw it – to unknown lands that needed to be discovered. But at the same time he was guided by the constant awareness that this territory had to be preserved and in a certain respect kept away from the “Western” world with its traditional power structures, which posed a threat to the safeguarding of the treasures of this new continent.

Travelling as a driving force for discoveries

This return journey has its origins in the human desire for knowledge and, above all, independent understanding. And cinema is nothing more than another possible way of defining this concept of identity that’s so hard to understand. Travelling as a driving force for discoveries often tells more of an introspective story than a historical one, throwing our own perspective – generally that of a colonist as well – back in our faces. In moving around and relocating we attempt to find our own tone, our own way of seeing.
 
What we know as the road movie is not just a film genre, it also represents the cinema history of a continent undergoing constant change, on which it’s the journey that’s important rather than the destination. During this state of being in transit, the landscape and nature are radically viewed as characters who use their power to challenge the “heroes”. The landscape assimilates physical and human plots within itself, and these spread out and intermesh with each other.

The colonist as protagonist

Zama (2017) by Lucrecia Martel takes place in Asunción del Paraguay when it was a Spanish colony at the end of the 18th century. The film does a brilliant job of showing how the landscape holds the colonist captive like a net, subjecting him to the trials of time, the climate and the fantasy of possessing something that turns out to be unattainable: America. The journey through this continent harboured the constant risk of falling prey to madness and somehow even the incomprehensible. And Humboldt, an expert on plants and stones as well as an excellent judge of human character, was able to figure out precisely that.
 
Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) by Werner Herzog portrays the eponymous reckless and crazed colonist, entrapped within the confines of his mind and enraged by his desire that at the same time reflects his incompetence: a landscape whose beauty transforms into insanity – and a journey that never reaches its destination.
 
If you consider the places of origin of both films, a fascinating dialogue of time and perspective unfurls. With an interval of a little more than forty years between them, they depict European perspectives on America that are contradictory yet complementary. Zama also introduces a completely new discourse, turning the camera back on Aguirre: Zama does not reproduce the male viewpoint of the viceroyalty for the nth time and refuse to take up the epic tale of the Conquistador – instead the film expresses the barbaric, stupid nature of bureaucracy. Equally, it portrays not exotic natives, but non-speaking slaves.
 
This discourse returns in a new form, and does not just address the America – Europe direction. Words and concepts in Amazonian languages, as well as a reading of the work From Honey to Ashes by Claude Lévi-Strauss, take us on a sensual journey of meditation with incredible, meticulously filmed close-ups of Nature along the banks of the Rhine in Germany – not in the Amazonian rainforest as first appearances might indicate.

Decontextualisation of concepts

Ursprung der Nacht. Amazonas-Kosmos (1973-1977) by Lothar Baumgarten, a German concept artist, sends us on this new and mysterious journey through words – Signified and Signifier – expanding on the idea that power is exercised through the reinterpretation of words, their decontextualisation and appropriation. This appropriation takes place as a result of the constant juxtaposition of incomparable forces.
 
At the start of the film the screen is black, then we see the names of species in yellow letters in German – such as “SPECHT” (woodpecker), mingled together with names like “MANIOK” and Guaraní terms in lighter script, for example “COATI” and “URUBÚ”. This introduction finishes when all the words (species) disappear from the screen and night falls, moving on to the creation myth of the Tupi (an Amazonian culture in Brazil), and this time the story is told in German. The changing titles and the picture itself refer to the appropriation of the Other, as well as the language and images thereof.
 
In the series of changing concepts we can include Homo Botanicus (2019) by Guillermo Quintero, the newest film yet the one with the most ancient history. A master and his scholar, a wise man and his disciple, collect and catalogue bromeliads and other species, which are later added to the herbarium collection at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. An apparently simple tale of two men set in the present time, for whom the jungle is no longer a trap but something that seduces and beguiles them with the beauty and tranquil unspoiled wisdom of Nature. They aren’t battling against the hostile natura any longer, instead they have become homo botanicus, understanding their own beings through Nature.
 
The film lives through the characters and their words, avoiding the gratuitous pleasure in the image, in beauty per se, that is inherent in Nature. Instead this beauty is located in interpersonal relationships, discrepancies and disagreements. The story finds its target in something that’s probably yet another idealised relationship, as mysterious and idealised as what lies behind the plants collected by these two individuals.

Films as products of a culture

Representation forms originating from the colonial era during which Humboldt and others conducted their expeditions underlie the way we envisage and present ourselves to this day. But they have also opened up the way for a rift, a collision, a conflict with this hard-to-grasp concept of identity. In these films it is nothing else than the search for a narrative that reveals patterns and changes them.
 
Cinema as a narrative that transcends time yet follows time is an art form in itself, which battles with the conflicting forces already mentioned: one aspect is what story is being told, what’s being addressed, and on the other hand the conditions under which it is produced. The unavoidable tension exists between the artistic creators and the requirements and expectations of their funding sources, who are investing in the uncertain promise of the audience as consumers and paying customers. This intermediary position is sometimes impossible in this art as well. Films that are products of a particular culture, time or context reflect these, and their best chance of survival is rooted in the ability to develop dialogues that lead to questions and rifts. A programme of films that’s so varied in form, aesthetic and release date shows how some ideas take shape as permanent points of departure and arrival.
 
As with every programme, the eleven films are a clearly defined attempt to build bridges and inspire reappraisal. The motivation behind them is not natural history any longer, it’s a human view of the effects of the colony, the way power has been exercised, the negated and deconstructed values of American cultures and, above all, finding one’s own voice in the language of film.

This text was first published in Issue No. 163 of the Columbian publication “Revista Arcadia”, which is dedicated to Alexander von Humboldt’s 250th birthday.