When I think of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, the first image that springs to my mind is Klaus Kinski's face – those burning blue eyes suggesting a deep and impenetrable madness that cannot be quenched. It's the most iconic and celebrated performance of Kinski's career (and deservedly so), but upon rewatching the film, I couldn't help but notice how little Kinski actually appears. He is nearly absent throughout the film's first half-hour, occasionally popping up in shots which merely establish him as an intense figure lurking in the background. Even after the developments of the plot place him at the film's center, director Werner Herzog often abandons him for minutes at a time, absorbing all of the other sights, sounds and faces drifting through his saga of madness and death. Nonetheless, Kinski's Aguirre hovers over every scene. We feel his presence at all times, that piercing gaze continuing to linger in our thoughts. I do not intend to diminish Kinski when I say that this effect is a tribute to his presence, not to his acting talent. To be more specific, it is a tribute to Herzog's understanding of Kinski's presence, and how to use it.
Who is Lope de Aguirre, exactly? He begins as the right-hand man of Gonzalo Pizzaro (Alejandro Repulles), a Spanish conquistador leading a search for the fabled land of El Dorado. Alas, Pizzaro searches for gold on behalf of his king, and Aguirre has little interest in such loyalties. He stages a mutiny and replaces Pizzaro with the slovenly, easily-influenced Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling), who seems an ideal puppet under the circumstance. Alas, Aguirre will not long be content with simply pulling Guzman's strings, and his ever-increasing desire for control is matched by an ever-increasing detachment from reality.
The story goes that Kinski wanted to play Aguirre as a ranting madman, screaming his lines to convey the depths of his insanity. Herzog wanted something entirely different – a quiet, understated madness that would be seen, not heard. Kinski was hardly an easy actor to work with (indeed, his relationship with Herzog – so effectively summarized in the 1999 documentary My Best Fiend – is one of the most famously contentious actor/director relationships in history), so he fought with Herzog on the matter, shouting and screaming all the way. Once Kinski grew too weary to continue his rants, Herzog would roll the camera and get precisely the performance he desired. Kinski was an actor of some note who appeared in many films (in both starring and supporting roles), but only Herzog knew both Kinski's greatest qualities and how to convince the actor to display those qualities.
Indeed, Herzog had a way of getting exactly what he wanted no matter what measures were required of him. The director had to pretend to be a veterinarian in order to gain access to the hundreds of monkeys used in the film's jaw-dropping closing sequence, and continually found himself required to adapt the screenplay to the challenges of his environment. When one of Herzog's friends vomited all over his screenplay, Herzog re-wrote a large chunk of the story (unable to recall what he had written in the section which was destroyed). When a flood came and destroyed the rafts which had been built for the film, Herzog simply worked a flood into the story. When it was revealed that it would cost too much to do the film's required post-synchronization work in English (the language in which the film was shot), Herzog had the film dubbed in German (even replacing Kinski's voice after the actor demanded too much money). There are many reasons the film should have turned into an amateurish mess or an incoherent disaster, but every moment feels precisely right. It is a cinematic fever dream, yes, but a fever dream of great beauty, terror and purpose.
In broad strokes, Aguirre is a Heart of Darkness-inspired tale of a man's descent into madness, but Herzog effectively sells his portrait of the distant past by being remarkably attentive to the peripheral people, creatures and locations contained within his cinematic world. Who can forget the smirking Perucho (Daniel Ades), whoses idle chirps of “la la la la la la” feel so strangely unsettling? Or the chilling detour to an abandoned camp, which offers dead bodies, hints of cannibalism and no explanations? Or the horse Aguirre abandons, which stands at the edge of the river looking on as the men it once served float away?
The fact that the film was made for less than half a million dollars is astonishing, even after one takes inflation into account. There are sights in this film that put the expensive effects of modern blockbusters to shame, and I'm not just talking about the haunting marvel that is Kinski's anguished face. The opening sequence of the conquistadors and their slaves making their way down a mountain feels like something from a Biblical epic, and the aforementioned image of a fully-broken Aguirre surrounded by countless monkeys is one that will never leave me.
The dreamlike qualities of the movie are not only accentuated by the imagery, but by the film's sound design. Aguirre owes a considerable debt to the celestial music of Popol Vuh, which is justifiably one of the film's most-praised elements. The music doesn't comment directly on the action, but rather provides a certain hymnal tone that feels unlike any film score before it (movies made since have certainly tried to recreate the effect). The movie has many moments of violence, and yet it doesn't quite feel violent because the soundtrack never accentuates moments of death or terror. Unseen natives attack from the woods, but we don't hear the whooshing of arrows or screams of pain. Men are simply alive in one shot and dead in another, their blood spilling out onto the raft as Aguirre looks forward in focused indifference. All we hear are the ever-chirping birds and the ever-flowing river. By the final act, Aguirre's madness has infected his men to such a degree that they no longer believe in such previously tangible things as death, pain, hunger or salvation.
The movie is narrated by a priest (Del Negro), whose noble offscreen words often fail to match his self-serving onscreen actions. Upon learning that Aguirre is staging a ruthless coup, the priest raises no moral objection. “For the good of our Lord, the church was always on the side of the strong,” he insists. In one scene, the priest encounters a confused native, and forces him to convert to Christianity. He is not regarded as insane for doing so, but he serves as a parallel to Aguirre, forcing his dogmatic beliefs onto those too helpless to object.
The film stands next to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (a movie which Coppola readily admits took a good deal of inspiration from this one) as one of the definitive cinematic portraits of madness, and it's telling that both movies were made by men willing to go as far as necessary to achieve their vision. The key difference: Coppola's film drove him to madness. Herzog was mad to begin with. The word “fearless” is thrown around too casually in reference to filmmakers, but it feels accurate in Herzog's case. He seems able to achieve almost anything because he fears nothing, and Aguirre, the Wrath of God is one of his defining works.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Year: 1972