Aguirre, Wrath of God is the film that first broke Werner Herzog to an international audience and is still seen by many as his greatest achievement. A sprawling, nihilistic epic, the film sits somewhere between a mainstream adventure story and an arty existentialist study of obsession, and the sheer insanity of the film – in concept and in the grand scale of the production – makes it seem utterly unique, even after the structure and atmosphere was lifted by Francis Ford Coppola for Apocalypse Now.
Based loosely on real events, it follows the journey of Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés), who in 1560 led a doomed expedition down the Amazon and through the Peruvian rain forest in search of the mythical city of El Dorado – a place, we are told in the opening text, was invented by local natives as a taunting revenge on their Spanish conquerors.
The film has one of the most remarkable opening shots in cinema: a line of men – conquistadors and slaves – winding their way down the narrow path of a mountain into the valley below, their journey already looking like a mad folly before we even know what they are doing. With the women folk carried in sedan-chairs and heavy cannons being lost or essentially dragging down those trying to transport them, this seems a trip into madness already, yet at this stage it remains oddly organised. Pizarro soon realises that this is a journey that is doomed, and so selects a small band of men to complete it, led by aristocratic Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra), and with the sullen Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as his second in command, Ursua’s wife Flores (Cecilia Rivera) and Aguirre’s daughter Inez (Helena Rojo) also join the doomed party.
When, after some time travelling, Ursua declares the journey to be pointless and decides to return to the main group, Aguirre leads a mutiny against him – his greed, his lust for power and influence now cutting him off from his leader, the main group and his nation (he makes a formal declaration breaking away from Spanish rule and sets Guzman (Peter Berling) up as their new emperor (a token position the incompetent nobleman is at first uncomfortable with but soon takes to, abusing his power in a way that clearly dooms him). The group, dominated by Aguirre, plough on with their hopeless search, running out of food and belief, assaulted by unseen natives who pick them off with arrows and poison darts – as well as their own party, crazed with hunger and rebelling against their new leader – and slowly descending into madness as their raft floats slowly down the river, until only the crazed Aguirre remains, still power-hungry and defiant, even though his only living companions now are a swarm of monkeys that surround the raft.
Much as with the later Apocalypse Now (which you will not be able to stop seeing in this film), the making of Aguirre is the stuff of legend – a cast and crew taken into the jungle location and put through an ordeal on slightly less gruelling than that shown on film, the battles between Kinski and Herzog that, the legend says, saw the director threatening the star with a gun (not true, but Herzog did threaten to kill Kinski and himself if the actor carried out his threat to walk off the set). It’s impossible to separate what we know of the making from what we see now, of course, but this atmosphere of insanity and megalomaniac madness – Herzog being the film’s real Aguirre, pushing his fevered crew to new levels of despair (he would do likewise later on in Fitzcarraldo, of course) – is constant throughout the film. There’s an authenticity to the hopelessness captured on film, the sense of a mad folly that might never see completion. You have to wonder how many people involved believed that of the film itself. In any case, it results in a film that captures a peculiar level of insanity perfectly. It’s a film of little dialogue and little ‘action’ – the moments of violence (strong for a PG rated film these days, it must be said) are shot in a deliberately unflashy manner, only a cartoonish decapitation being presented in an especially upfront way. Characters are allowed to develop and then are killed off randomly, and much of the film is more concerned with the gradual collapse of the doomed mission than it is with overly dramatic scenes of conflict.
Kinski, of course, is perfectly cast as Aguirre, his ‘excitable’ manner pulled back for the most part, his character given to few words other than sudden outbursts of ego (Guzman might be the official new leader, but there is no doubt who is really in charge) as he rules his men (and women) with an iron fist. He can do so only because they are already beaten down to the point where they will follow anyone with belief – and their mission doesn’t seem an entirely pointless one when Aguirre speaks, his belief in El Dorado being unshakeable to the end, even though everyone else seems to realise that it is like chasing the end of a rainbow.
Herzog gives the film a grand scale – this is epic cinema, no question – yet he keeps the drama down to Earth. That extraordinary opening shot aside, the film is grounded in misery, claustrophobic and grim images of the group struggling through mud and trees in the jungle mixed with lost imagery of them floating, uncontrolled and helpless, down the river. It’s a visually stunning movie, but it makes no effort to seem spectacular, instead concentrating on the internal madness of Aguirre and his mission. With a fantastic Popol Vuh score adding to both the scope and the folly of events, the film manages to be both grand and intimate at the same time. In the end, we are left to watch events unfolding, helpless observers of a tragedy that everyone except their leader seems to understand, and the atmosphere created by Herzog through sound and vision is one of total despair. That makes the film sound like it’s heavy going, but in fact, Aguirre remains a fascinating, entertaining drama.