Sometimes I like to imagine Werner Herzog works the way he does because nobody ever told him about special effects. If you want to make a film about a 300-ton steamboat being dragged over a mountain you have to find a 300-ton steamboat and drag it over a mountain. How else could it be done? If you want to make a film about a hostile universe’s terrifying indifference towards mankind you have to subject your film crew to a gruelling ordeal in the South American rainforest and make them genuinely fear for their lives by flinging them down some rapids on a raft. Like all the best films, AGUIRRE, DER ZORN GOTTES has a story behind it as intriguing as the events that end up in the finished product.
It opens with a long zoom from the mountain to a cavalcade of soldiers precariously making their way down the mud-soaked hillside. Not only are they battling the most inhospitable conditions imaginable, but they’re doing it having to transport several huge cannon and two noblewomen in velvet-lined sedan chairs. A dishevelled monk marches along with them. They are conquistadors under the command of Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés): having slaughtered and enslaved the Incan people they are now in search of their mythical “El Dorado”, land of gold. From the beginning, we the audience know they are doomed to failure but the characters also seem to be aware of that themselves. As in Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and Joseph Conrad’s source novel ‘Heart Of Darkness’ the jungle landscape is presented as a primal force that cannot possibly be overcome by man. As the journey pushes on, a power struggle between the men ensues: the imperialist machinations of the various European powers circling around the new continent played out in microcosm by a group of desperate and greedy men. The upper-hand is eventually won by Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), who declares the expedition’s independence from the Spanish crown and installs one of the men as a puppet emperor, the “Emperor of El Dorado”. He convicts his deposed commander of treason by kangaroo court, and the remaining men he has not killed he forces onto rickety rafts to continue his quest on the fast-flowing Amazon.
It’s interesting how much time passes during the film with the men sitting around doing nothing, just trying to stand the heat and insects inside their heavy armour whilst waiting for the next order from the lunatic in charge. They are all of them in some way waiting for a revelation, in particular Aguirre “El Loco”, who has come to believe his quest is of divine providence. Kinski’s mesmerizing depiction of a man descending into power-crazed madness is one of the greatest performances of the seventies, varying from a chillingly intense rationalism to a raging psychopathy. As the film ends Aguirre drifts alone downstream with the raft as his kingdom and a tribe of monkeys as his only servants, ranting to the jungle about his plans to sire a new dynasty with his dead daughter. “I am the wrath of God. Who else is with me?” Right to the end he does not give up on his obsession, and by this point the film feels like we have slipped entirely into a dream. “Visionary” is a word bandied about too often but it applies to Werner Herzog’s films both in the sense of experiencing illusory sensations and being characterized by audacious, world-changing ideas.
As depicted in the documentaries BURDEN OF DREAMS (1982) and MY BEST FIEND (1999), the relationship between lead actor and director was, to put it mildly, volatile. Allegedly the disagreements culminated in Herzog pointing a gun at Kinski to prevent him walking off the set (although in Kinski’s autobiography he denies this, claiming that it was he who carried a gun on set). But this tension or outright hatred would fuel an inspired series of collaborations: cinematic monuments to hubristic folly. To quote Roger Ebert on Herzog: “Even his failures are spectacular”. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for anything with a Krautrock soundtrack.