An Appreciation – Aguirre: The Wrath of God
A tale of movie lore describes how Herzog, working with a very low budget, stole the 35mm camera he used to shoot this movie. It goes to show how far he was willing to go to create his story, and with that willpower he created a film full of unforgettable images. That is one of the lasting effects that I take away from the movie—the number of haunting scenes that resonate long after the film has ended. There is the aforementioned scene at the beginning of the movie, with the expedition climbing down the mountainside. Then there’s the shot of the three rafts floating down the river, apparently with no kind of protection, completely vulnerable to whatever rapids or other perils may lay ahead of them. One scene features a horse that the group throws off their raft and leaves stranded by the riverside. It’s hard to shake from my mind the image of the horse disappearing into woods as they float away, like the last remnants of hope slipping through their fingers, or the scene where Inez (Helena Rojo)—Ursua’s wife—mysteriously walks in to the woods never to be seen again. Then there are the final scenes, with the men decimated from famine and native attacks, so weak and fragile that death would almost come as relief. Herzog finds a place for dark humor here, as one man who ends up with a spear through his stomach comments on how “long arrows” are coming into fashion, or how another watches an arrow land right in his leg without even blinking an eye.
But if there is one aspect that you will take from this film, one thing that you will certainly not forget, it is the actor Klaus Kinski playing the title role of Don Lope de Aguirre. The collaboration of Kinski and Herzog has become legendary, one of the best actor/director pairings both in the art that they created and in the well-known feuds and fights they had with one another. This film would be the first of five that they would create, and here they have molded a character that is bigger than life. Aguirre feels as though he lives in his own world, as if everyone around him is a tool for him to project his egocentric ideas of self-righteousness upon. He is first assigned to be the second-in-command of the smaller group, but almost immediately assumes the leader role himself. Even when the pudgy Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling) is voted to replace Ursua, we know that the real person pulling the strings is Aguirre. His sole motivation is glory and fame, and Aguirre has no boundaries in what he’ll do to attain it. When certain characters’ lives are put on the line, Aguirre would easily sacrifice them if it meant that everyone else (especially him) could survive another day. If he hears of someone attempting to abandon the group, he’ll chop their heads off before they can even finish speaking their sentence. It’s no question that Aguirre has become insane with his God-like complex, and the unforgiving environment only helps to enforce his madness.
Aguirre could have only been played by an actor who toed the line of his own sanity. Kinski was known for his short temperament and explosive personality. His violent outbursts and rantings have been well recorded. There have been times where heated arguments between Kinski and Herzog have gotten so bad that one would threaten the life of the other. Rumor had it that Herzog threatened Kinski with a gun if he didn’t finish filming this movie. On the set of Fitzcarraldo (1982), the tribesmen who played the extras offered Herzog their services in actually killing Kinski (Herzog declined, of course, because he needed him to finish the movie). And while their dynamic clearly goes beyond the idea of a “love/hate relationship,” there is no denying that their chemistry together helped produce incredible results. Herzog met Kinski when he was a young boy, and knew right then that he would be destined to work with the actor in his future. With his stark blond hair and large eyes, Kinski’s presence commanded attention. The animosity and anger that he had helped in portraying a loose cannon character—you can almost see the fire in the man bubbling just beneath the surface. In the final moments of the film, with Aguirre crookedly standing on that raft alone with only the monkeys to keep him company, we can tell why Herzog was so willing to work with this difficult actor as often as he did.
The beauty of Aguirre: The Wrath of God is seeing the product of a man who would not let go of his passion, no matter how strenuous the journey may be. Herzog fought through enormous difficulties beyond his control while making the film, but because of that the finished product is all the more accomplished. It’s a movie made out of sheer force of spirit, in the same vein as Apocalypse Now (1979) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). There are big ideas that run through this, and if Herzog had made it in any other fashion, it would not have been as effective. For me, it all boils down to one key moment in the movie. The few surviving men, fighting on their last legs, look up and notice a ship perched high on a tree. There is no explanation for this; they don’t know how it got up there or if it’s really up at there at all. The river’s high tide could not have possibly put that ship anywhere near that height—it must have been placed there. “Impossible!” you say? There are some who would disagree with you.