From the Desk of Bigger Boat Pictures:
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
Directed by Werner Herzog
Reviewed by James Rosario
Rating: Watch immediately. Herzog is a master and Kinski is his lunatic muse. A must see!
The madness involved in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) is evident from the its onset. The opening shots depict hundreds of actors and extras trekking up an ancient pathway to the top of a South American mountain. This is no sound-stage or or a trick of clever cinematography. This is an actual ancient pathway to the top of an actual South American mountain, and somehow, Herzog was able to convince everyone to start marching. The troupe resembles a colony of ants slowly making their way to an unknown destination. In nature, ants follow the queen’s orders without question. In the case of the cast and crew of Aguirre, however, I bet they needed a lot of sweet talking.
It’s hard to write about Aguirre and not bring up its legendary production difficulties. The filming was fraught with harsh conditions, impossible terrains, risky stunts, and of course, the famous lunacy of its star, Klaus Kinski. Yet without these difficulties, would the film have the same impact? No, I do not believe it would. There is no better way to capture the film’s aura of madness and despair quite like creating a real situation that consists of, well, madness and despair. In haunting scene after haunting scene, you can feel the danger. There’s a tension in the film that could never be recreated in a studio or anywhere that approaches civilization. It had to be the jungle, the real jungle. But, this is a Werner Herzog film, so what do you expect.
The plot: In late 1560 and early 1561 a group of Spanish conquistadors, along with a hundred or so Indian slaves, traverse the wilds of the Andes Mountain region of South America in search of the fabled City of Gold. When they find themselves low on supplies and succumbing to the harsh environment, the expedition leader, Gonzolo Pizarro ( Alejandro Repulles) decides to send a party of about 40 men ahead by raft to scout for information concerning the lost city. This smaller group is lead by Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerrs), his second in command, Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), the nobleman Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling), and the group’s religious attache, Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro). Also in tow are Ursua’s mistress, Dona Ines (Helena Rojo) and Aguirre’s teenage daughter, Flores (Cecilia Rivera).
Between the dangerous travel, lack of supplies, and the constant threat of attack by a hostile native population, who the Spaniards believe to be cannibals, tensions are high from the get go. It doesn’t take long for mutiny to occur and the command to be manipulated into the hands of Aguirre. Hunger, paranoia, and death are abound as the doomed group floats helplessly down the river to their fates.
Greed is what motivates these men above all. Their foolhardy quest for El Dorado, a city that doesn’t exist, consumes them and destroys them. They renounce the Spanish King and form their own upstart empire, claiming every mile of land they float by for themselves. This creates more and more hunger for wealth and power by the minute. Even Carvajal, the holy man, seems to care for gold first and spreading the word of God second. He demands to know where a captured native’s gold necklace came from, then murders him for blasphemy moments later.
Aguirre has the biggest of aspirations. Through murder and deceit, he ends up in command—which was his plan all along—and declares himself “the wrath of God.” He vows to take on the Spanish throne and become the most powerful man in the world. He’s beyond paranoid and delusional, not unlike Fred Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) in John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Both men have a zeal that can’t be stopped or reasoned with, except maybe by the harsh land they’re trespassing on, and the locals who inhabit it. In reality, Aguirre and his men are trapped on a raft, lost, starving, going mad with fever, and at the complete mercy of the natives who can kill them at any moment. They continue because their greed demands it, and because their situation becomes more and more dreamlike with each passing day. The surreality of it all is a weight pressing down on them, but it is also a release from life at the same time. They eventually become uncertain of what is real and what is not, and they don’t seems to care either way.
There are two very important variables that factor into the sense of paranoia and feverish dreams that are the cornerstone of Aguirre. They are the score, and the performance of the lead. The sound and the fury, if you will.
The film opens with the atmospheric and experimental tones of German electronic band Popol Vuh. The unnerving score sets the mood, it gets us going in the direction Herzog wants us to go. It’s an odd yet effective choice music. It doesn’t belong out there in the jungle—it’s too modern and too far from home—but then again, so are our conquistadors. Their weapons, armor, and beliefs come from halfway around the world and are just as out of place as the German electro-pop we hear. That, and it’s just plain eerie music, it’s weird and eccentric like the film’s director. Soon, the music fades, and we are left only with the sounds of the jungle and the river. This natural soundscape is even more unsettling than the opening score, especially when it suddenly ceases all together. It is at that time that you realize just how loud nature really is, and how vulnerable the explorers are. They have a drive and a zeal to control the landscape and it’s people, but they cannot, and that terrifies them, adding to their dementia.
The dialogue found in Aguirre is kept sparse yet effective. There aren’t many wasted words to be found in the film. The longest bits of dialogue are reserved for its star, Klaus Kinski, and even then it is largely saved for the end of the film. For the majority, Kinski’s lines are short and sweet. He offers interesting observations, that are then acted on by his loyalists. For example, he suggests that a potential deserter may be “a head taller than me,” which leads to a decapitation so fast that the man’s head, once it stops rolling, finishes its sentence. Aguirre has a hypnotic spell over his men, and those he can’t control are quickly disposed of with orders of vague suggestion.
Kinski portrays Aguirre in a way so menacing, I’m hard-pressed to come up with an equal. He lumbers around like an ape, almost subhuman, seemingly incapable of standing up straight. He resembles a wild animal in both gait and temperament. He abuses slaves and fellow soldiers alike, beating them while hurling insults. Legend has it, Kinski actually hit one of the extras so hard that he gave him a concussion. If the poor fellow hadn’t been wearing a helmet, his skull may have been split.
Kinski’s true madness, however, lies behind his eyes. They portray a dreamer, a schemer, and a lunatic all at once. I believe that only he could have played the role of Aguirre. There is something so utterly believable about his performance that it’s likely to stick with you for some time. He’s not a likable character, you don’t root for him, and you know his plans are completely insane and in no way grounded in reality, yet you are unable to take your eyes off of him. He draws you into his piercing blue eyes, and then with his cruel sneer, holds you there. You’re trapped in this madman’s head. Kinski’s Aguirre is a powerful performance, and should be required viewing for any acting student.
I only saw Aguirre, the Wrath of God recently, although it’s been on my list of “must see films” for some time. It was an obvious influence on a number of films I enjoy, Apocalypse Now (1979) being the most apparent. I saw the final scene in a film class about a year ago and actually got angry that I was not more familiar with the film. The scene was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen committed to film, and when I finally had an opportunity to sit down with it in its entirety, I found myself ashamed that I had let this one fall by the wayside for so long.
I admire directors who take risks and, above all, do things on their own terms. Herzog certainly fits this bill, possibly more so than any other contemporary filmmaker. I also love pure acting done by true devotees of the craft, and if that ain’t Klaus Kinski, then I don’t know who it is. It’s really easy to tell the difference between those who love their art form, and those who love a paycheck, and those who are just plain nuts.
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