Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
1560, Peru. A Spanish expedition led by Gonzalo Pizzaro descends from the Andes into the jungle, in search of El Dorado. Encountering difficulty crossing the river, Pizzaro orders a party of forty to forage onwards on makeshift rafts.
Commanding this expedition is Don Pedro de Ursua, with Don Lope de Aguirre as second-in-command, joined by nobleman Don Fernando de Guzman, Gaspar de Carvajal, a monk chronicling the journey, Ursua’s mistress Dona Inez and Aguirre’s daughter, Flores.
Setting off, one of the rafts becomes trapped in a whirlpool, its crew turning up dead before they can be reached. Though Ursua wants the bodies returned for a proper burial, Aguirre orders for a cannon to fire and sink the raft.
Overnight, rising tides sweep away the remaining rafts and Ursua orders the convoy to turn back. Aguirre rebels, promising fortune for those who follow him. A mutiny follows where Ursua and a disciple are shot. While Inez cares for them, Aguirre convinces the mutineers to elect Guzman their new leader. The new regime finds Ursua guilty of treason, sentencing him to death, though Guzman shows clemency.
Setting off on a new, larger raft, the explorers encounter a native couple who are accused of blasphemy and killed when they don’t recognise Gaspar’s bible.
Guzman has the expedition’s only horse jettisoned overboard as it annoys him. Guzman is later found dead outside the raft’s outhouse, prompting Aguirre to take control. Ursua is taken away and killed.
Indians attack with arrows and during the battle Inez disappears into the jungle. Aguirre then beheads a would-be traitor.
Starving and hallucinating, the crew believe they see a sailboat in a tree’s branches. Indians attack again, killing everyone but Aguirre, whose daughter dies in his arms. Aguirre becomes surrounded by dozens of monkeys who he addresses, claiming he will endure and rule all of New Spain.
At the climax of Werner Herzog’s impressive imagining of a doomed sixteenth century Spanish expedition to El Dorado, the fabled ‘City of Gold,’ Klaus Kinski’s fantastically unhinged commander Aguirre delivers a passionate, frenzied speech to an oblivious tribe of monkeys. Though it is evident the conquistador has finally taken leave of his senses, Aguirre poses some intriguing questions about the correlation between mental illness and strong leadership.
Historically, some of the greatest leaders, from Churchill to Ghandi, suffered from emotional disorders, yet managed to be astonishingly determined and inspirational in times of despair. Likewise, last man standing Aguirre defies his inner torment, exhibiting the unflappable resilience that convinced so many to follow. So certain of his deserved place in history, the deluded commander is completely uncompromising, inviting interesting comparisons with Herzog himself, a committed, resilient director, rumoured to be mad, who seemingly revels in doing things the hard way.
This is the auteur who, on Fitzcarraldo (1982), decided that the best way to portray a ship being moved over a mountain, deep in the rainforest, was to actually move a real ship over a mountain and film it, and this absurd resoluteness can be traced right through the bold venture that is Aguirre. Shot in the hazardous jungles of Peru, there is a sense of genuine intense peril in the raft-bound scenes. Cast and crew seemingly risk life and limb in treacherous, choppy conditions to conjure a real feeling of vulnerable isolation, man versus nature in the inhospitable wilderness. Many scenes, such as when a raft becomes stranded in a deadly whirlpool, are downright terrifying, a result of Herzog’s determination to film everything on location. This is real menace, as authentic as it gets, the director showing shades of the film’s titular commander, more than willing to push his performers to the edge.
You would expect this level of conviction from a man who once ate his own shoe to settle a bet, and the resulting film is fascinating. At times Herzog can be deliberately oblique, often frustrating, such as when he presents a patience testing fifty second sustained close-up of a roaring river, but the film consistently intrigues. Dialogue is sparse and there are prolonged scenes where little transpires, but with the sustenance of progressive Krautrock band Popol Vuh’s minimalistic score of haunting strings and desolate synths, the effect is often soothingly hypnotic. In fact, Aguirre is often most effective when completely silent, crafting a mood of ominous seclusion, a sense that these travellers are truly lost in the unknown at the behest of a madman.
In his portrayal of the sneering despot, Kinski is extraordinary, controlling scenes with frightening intensity, intimidating potential usurpers with a smouldering glare. The actor and Herzog shared a famously volatile relationship, but here he displays a remarkably restrained, chilling physicality which would lead the director to cast him a further four times. Kinski deftly depicts Aguirre’s escalating madness, compounding the grisly sense of dread to the point where it is clear that his crew’s fate is sealed long before they drift into a salvo of native’s arrows.
Based on the Herzog’s conviction and the evident hardships involved in making the film, Aguirre is easy to admire, though it is difficult to totally enjoy. The film sags in places with many supporting players portraying conquistadors and slaves giving static performances, lacking urgency and expression, making them difficult to care for. However the gradual build-up of a supremely brooding atmosphere makes amends. Quiet, contemplative moments are punctuated by sudden bursts of extreme violence and horror and there are wonderful instances of beauty and vision, like Aguirre’s aforementioned demented discourse with his simian counsel, that will live long in the memory.
As much an exploration of insane perseverance, as a meditation on the folly of delusional, self-righteous colonial invaders, Herzog and Kinski’s first collaboration is an engaging, haunting achievement. It is a film about dogged perseverance that manages to reach places cinema rarely goes, because its architect was crazy enough to push that bit further. Like Aguirre himself, Herzog’s desire to achieve something significant leaves a legacy that won’t be easily forgotten.