Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Year: 1972
Production Co: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion
Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: Werner Herzog
Cast: Klaus Kinski

This isn't the kind of film I'd ever watch to suit my own tastes, it's more like Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia or Blade Runner, one with such a vaunted place in cinema history I can't call myself a cinephile without having seen it.

I'm glad I did and I did get something out of it, but like a lot of 'classic' films, it isn't one I'll watch every few years for the rest of my life as a dedicated fan. Maybe, like Tippi Hedren and her family almost getting eaten by lions for Roar or Coppola considering suicide during Apocalypse Now we're attracted by the mystique behind the scenes.

If you know anything about this film or Werner Herzog's oeuvre you probably know the stories about how his frequent leading man Klaus Kinski was such a toxic presence on film sets (shooting a gun at a crew hut where the noise was keeping him awake and taking the top off an extra's finger, Herzog purposefully making him angry enough to scream and rant for an hour before rolling so he'd eventually tire himself out because it was the only way to get the quieter, more measured performance out of his star that he wanted, etc).

Maybe one of the reasons it's so admired is because Like Apocalypse Now it's obvious what a staggering technical achievement it is. The opening scenes of Pizarro and his men trudging through the mountainous jungles of Peru make it clear what kind of conditions Herzog and his company worked in – and all of it far before the advent of CGI and digital cheats.

Actors floating down raging rapids, carrying cannons down muddy mountain passes, everyone in period 16th Century Spanish military garb, a horse going berserk on a log raft. You can't imagine getting film technology equipment of the early 1970s into places like that at all, let alone capturing a cohesive story with it.

I might also have mentioned Apocalypse Now because after it was over I realised the story can be thought of as another interpretation of Conrad's Heart of Darkness (Coppola himself has acknowledged the debt he owes it).

Who else is Aguirre (Kinski) in the final scenes but Colonel Kurtz just before he finds the tribe who believes he's a god, having gone literally insane from the heat, sweat, isolation and starvation, alone on a river with everyone dead around him, still ranting about how he's going to find El Dorado and bathe in riches and glory?

Conquistador Pizarro's party is in search of the mythical city of gold as the film opens and Aguirre is a soldier, wrangling his men and the Indians they've captured and taken as slaves. They're walking in a sombre single file, two women (including Aguirre's own daughter) in the group as they clatter and clank through the thick foliage with their swords and armour, carrying all their provisions and weapons by hand.

Pizarro calls a meeting to tell everyone they're running out of food and have no idea where they're going. He commands a squad of forty soldiers, a nobleman and the priest to go downriver to see if they can find the trail to El Dorado again. The rest of them will stay behind for one week and if the advance party don't return, Pizarro will consider them lost and turn back, El Dorado hidden forever.

The men, led by senior officer Ursua and with Aguirre his second in command, build rafts and set off, beset by all the trials the river and jungle can throw at them. They quickly run out of food. They come across a temporarily empty native camp before realising it's home to cannibals who've already captured and eaten members of another Spanish party long thought lost. One of the rafts gets trapped in an eddy, doomed to float in circles with no escape until everyone on board shoots himself in the night rather than starve to death or drown.

When Ursua demands the bodies from the stricken raft be retrieved for burial, Aguirre goes against his orders in secret by ordering the raft and bodies destroyed by cannon fire, convinced retrieving them will only slow the party down. It's our first glimpse of the bloodthirsty determination that will follow.

So it's not much of a surprise that when the week is up and Ursua wants to turn back Aguirre mutinies, taking Ursua and his supporters, installing the nobleman as the new leader (with Aguirre himself as the silent puppet master) and forging ahead, already mad with the lust for gold and prepared to sacrifice everyone around him – including his own daughter – to find it.

The dialogue and action are spare and sparse, as if Herzog wanted the beautiful and treacherous surroundings to stand in for the drama and danger human folly might ordinarily provide. But Kinski's steely gaze (he looked insane in real life anyway) almost puts the dangers of tramping through the jungle with technology from the 1500s to shame. You expect him to shoot, stab or scream at someone at any moment.

You might also watch this movie and think you've come across a badly dubbed bootleg – in fact all the on-set dialogue (in English) was redubbed later in German.

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