For Werner Herzog, cinema is an active, participatory art—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 his subject matter. Herzog’s fictional films are intrinsically linked to his documentaries in that, in both cases, the director 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 certainly goes with Aguirre, The Wrath of God, the German auteur’s 1972 tale about Spanish conquistadors’ ill-fated trip through Peru’s Indian-inhabited jungles and down the treacherous Huallaga river. A saga of adventurers—and, specifically, the titular madman (Klaus Kinski)—driven headlong into annihilation by their own 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 Klaus Kinski, the infamously eccentric thespian and favorite of Herzog’s who, in his first of five collaborations with the director, embodies the Spanish explorer 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 is famous for its production folklore about Kinski’s uncontrollable, unmanageable 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 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, Aguirre immediately visualizes its central downward narrative slope from dreams of the heavenly to immersion into the hellish. In search of the legendary city of gold El Dorado, the expedition quickly finds itself incapable of traversing its swampy forest route, a predicament highlighted by a scene in which Kinski violently thrashes a crowd of natives while Herzog’s 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 unruly forces of nature, the civilized 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 with Cortez’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 the rank affords), as well as Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro), the film’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 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 Herzog and Thomas Mauch’s instinctively composed, lyrically rugged cinematography and Popol Vuh’s hypnotic soundtrack. The men’s traitorous backstabbing comes to be a reflection of the natives’ cannibalism, 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 this, Herzog’s first non-documentary masterpiece, a sense of Herculean bravado and spontaneous artistry that would continue to flourish throughout the remainder of his ’70’s output, culminating with Fitzcarraldo’s signature shot of an ocean-liner climbing a mountainside (something of a mirror-reverse of this movie’s introductory scene). “We’ll stage history, like others stage plays,” boasts Kinski’s insane conquistador at tale’s conclusion, a goal that also epitomizes the director’s modus operandi. Though with the still-haunting, still-resonant, still-awe-inspiring Aguirre, Herzog didn’t stop at staging the past—he relived it and, in the process, became a vital part of cinema history.