Review: Aguirre, the Wrath of God

There’s a rough-and-tumble grace to Werner Herzog’s first fiction masterpiece.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Photo: New Yorker Films

For Werner Herzog, cinema is an active art, participatory one in which the creation of a work requires the practitioner to actually live (or have already lived) it, as if truth comes most compellingly from an artist’s firsthand experience with their subject matter. Herzog’s fiction films are intrinsically linked to his documentaries in that, in both cases, the German auteur is often not simply the storyteller but, also, a willing and essential participant, his presence fundamentally, messily tangled up in the final product.

So it goes with Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Herzog’s 1972 tale about an ill-fated expedition of Spanish conquistadors through Peru’s jungles and down the treacherous Huallaga river. A saga of adventurers—and, specifically, Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski)—driven headlong into annihilation by their hubris and desire for immortality, it’s the first of Herzog’s many features in which his (anti-)heroes function as loose proxies for himself, with the actual, arduous process of making the film (on location, in the middle of nowhere, and with the help of natives) mirroring the thrust of his plot about swashbucklers barreling into the untamed wild in search of greatness. As would again be the case with Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde’s Manoel da Silva, Aguirre is Herzog, Herzog is Aguirre, and never shall the twain truly be separated.

If Herzog and Aguirre are kindred spirits, so, too, are both with Kinski, the infamously eccentric thespian who, in his first of five collaborations with Herzog, embodies Aguirre with a bestial ferocity that’s breathtaking in its enormity. His head frequently cocked to one side to suggest pre-murderous contemplation, his body swaying back and forth like a drunken predator poised to strike, Kinski is the force-of-nature center of Herzog’s South American-set maelstrom, lurching and careening about the frame with Shakespearean grandeur.

With his mesmerizing eyes radiating unchecked insanity, Kinski seems to inhabit Aguirre’s ratty armor-encased body and megalomaniacal soul like a pair of old, familiar sneakers, his presence so naturally in tune with his character’s escalating ego and self-destructiveness that the line separating performer from protagonist becomes hopelessly blurred. That Aguirre, the Wrath of God is famous for its production folklore about Kinski’s uncontrollable antics—which, reportedly, almost led to the death of a crew member, as well as caused Herzog to either threaten to shoot Kinski and then himself, or to ask his indigenous castmembers to off the star after the grueling shoot wrapped (take your pick of hearsay)—seems perfectly in keeping with the overriding vibe of fiction and reality being deliberately, and explosively, blended together.

It’s fitting that such speculation continues to surround—and intensify the mystique of—the film, as Aguirre, the Wrath of God itself stands a mythic portrait of colonial conquest run amok. Commencing with a stupendous shot of Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles), his troops, women, animals, and Incan slaves descending from the clouds as they wend their way along a mountainside’s path in 1560, the film immediately visualizes its central downward narrative slope from dreams of the heavenly to immersion into the hellish.

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In search of the legendary El Dorado, the expedition quickly finds itself incapable of traversing its swampy forest route, a predicament highlighted by a scene in which Aguirre violently thrashes a crowd of natives while the camera—assuming, as it will throughout, the perspective of one of Aguirre’s compatriots—displays water droplet smudges on its lens. Rendered impotent by the forces of nature, Pizarro orders a scouting mission ahead to be led by Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) and his second-in-command, Aguirre, though it’s not long before Aguirre begins subverting Ursua’s rule. When the cowardly leader, frustrated by their lack of progress, suggests that the group return to Pizarro’s camp, Aguirre stages a mutiny—an act that solidifies his standing as the only character to recognize (and embrace) the fact that the material and moral trappings of Spanish society have no dominion in this heart of darkness.

Just because Aguirre’s savageness is tailor-made for his new environs, however, doesn’t mean that his visions of rebellion and discovery—which he equates to Hernán Cortés’s search for Mexico—aren’t also the epitome of arrogance and greed. Driven by an insatiable hunger for glory and power, Aguirre is a man hopelessly corrupted, a state of being that also defines comrades such as the nobleman Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling), who welcomes his new post as future king of El Dorado (and the feasts that the rank affords), as well as Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro), Aguirre, the Wrath of God’s narrator and a monk whose desire to convert the unwashed masses to Christianity also masks an interest in gold.

With personal reward as their impetus, and starvation and the threat of attack (from the surrounding, but invisible, natives) as their constant burdens, the men find themselves turning against one another, their facades of propriety dropping away like a snake’s shed skin to reveal inherently base impulses. In this evolution, Kinski thrives most vigorously, epitomized by his screaming into the face of a horse so intensely that, without apparent crew-orchestrated help, the beast actually collapses to the ground. And yet the actor never succumbs to unchecked histrionics, as beautifully illustrated by his tender interaction with his daughter, Inez (Helena Rojo), an instant after felling the steed with his vocal vehemence.

Progressing inexorably toward Aguirre’s delusional pronouncement that he’s “the wrath of God”—and the contradicting finale in which he’s helplessly besieged by primates—the film exudes an atmosphere of ominous spiritual deterioration generated both from the lyrically rugged cinematography and hypnotic soundtrack. The men’s traitorous backstabbing reveals itself as a reflection of the natives’ cannibalism, while the futility of their quest is ultimately symbolized by the image of a boat perched in a towering tree’s branches, and the occasional cutaways to random natural sights (a cow nursing its young, a mouse relocating its babies to safer shelter) imbuing the action with mysterious, ancient import.

There’s a rough-and-tumble grace to Herzog’s first fiction masterpiece, a sense of Herculean bravado and spontaneous artistry that would continue to flourish throughout the remainder of his ’70s output, culminating with Fitzcarraldo’s signature shot of an ocean liner climbing a mountainside (something of a mirror-reverse of this film’s introductory scene). “We’ll stage history, like others stage plays,” boasts Kinski’s insane conquistador at the end of Aguirre, The Wrath of God, a goal that also epitomizes Herzog’s modus operandi. But with this still-haunting, still-resonant, still-awe-inspiring creation, Herzog didn’t stop at staging the past. Rather, he relived it and, in the process, became a vital part of cinema history.

 Cast: Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo, Del Negro, Ruy Guerra, Peter Berling, Cecilia Rivera, Daniel Ades, Edward Roland, Alejandro Repulles  Director: Werner Herzog  Screenwriter: Werner Herzog  Distributor: New Yorker Films  Running Time: 94 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1972  Buy: Video

Nick Schager

Nick Schager is the entertainment critic for The Daily Beast. His work has also appeared in Variety, Esquire, The Village Voice, and other publications.

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