There are a lot of directors who work with that special someone of an actor forging a partnership that becomes legendary within the cinematic world. Martin Scorsese had Robert DeNiro. ohn Ford had John Wayne. And German director Werner Herzog had Klaus Kinski. If you know anything about Klaus Kinski, this may seem a bit of a raw deal for Herzog. After all, as far as anyone knows, John Wayne never tried to knife Jon Ford to death on the set of a movie, and Robert DeNiro never insisted to Marty that he was the reincarnation of Jesus or the famed violin virtuoso Paganini. On the other hand, it’s equally unlikely that Scorsese has ever returned a knife fight with his own conspiracies to murder his favorite leading man. Although one has to question the authenticity of some of the wilder tales about the working relationship between Herzog and Kinski, there’s no doubt that some of it was indeed true and they had the sort of relationship that could be described, if one wanted to be tactful about it, as “dynamic.” The defining factor in the relationship between Herzog and Kinski was that Kinski was, to use a scientific term, bat-shit crazy while Herzog, in turn, was crazy as a shithouse bat. Yet somehow, you throw the two together, and the result was sheer brilliance etched from utter lunacy.
For my money, and I’ll admit up front to being no big Herzog expert, they are at their finest in the raving study of greed, madness, and the lust for power that is Aguirre, The Wrath of God. Thrown together in the jungles of South America to make a film about the spiraling madness of a Spanish Conquistador hell-bent on finding the fabled city of gold, El Dorado, Kinski and Herzog drove each other and those around them so berserk that the locals hired as extras were even offering to discreetly murder Kinski, who they completely and totally despised with every inch of their being. To the benefit of the film, these boiling emotions of hatred, frustration, and madness were exactly what the script called for, and thanks to Kinski’s raving insanity, it’s likely those around him had very little acting to do to push themselves to the point at which they needed to arrive.
Beginning on Christmas day (though this doesn’t necessarily mean you’d want to consider this a Christmas movie), in the year of our Lord 1560, Aguirre is told more or less through the journals of a monk accompanying a band of Conquistadors on their march across the South American continent. Finding themselves subjugated and mercilessly slaughtered by these men from across the ocean, the Incas formulate the only sort of revenge they have at their disposal and concoct a story about the lost city of El Dorado, where gold practically flows through the fountains and there are amassed piles of riches beyond the dreams of even the greediest Spanish invader. To the Incas’ credit, they place El Dorado, “somewhere over yonder” in a general direction that will take any would-be glory-hunters through the most treacherous terrain in perhaps the whole of the world. So, though defeated and humiliated, it must have provided at least some small degree of satisfaction to the Incas to watch groups of Conquistadors head down the mountains to the Amazon to die agonizing deaths and the hands of hunger, disease, and violent jungle Indians.
One such expedition is that of Aguirre, a commander whose lust not so much for gold as for power and dreams of establishing an empire that dwarfs that of his native Spain drives him first to mutiny and then to a veritable “death march on the river” as he drives his men deeper and deeper into the inescapable heart of the Amazon. It’s not unlike Heart of Darkness, except that instead of traveling down the river to madness, madness comes along for the whole ride. It would seem, also, that Aguirre would have been a major influence on Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981) or Francis Ford Coppola and Apocalypse Now (1979), which might be one of those things that is common knowledge if I ever sat down and watched Hearts of Darkness. Actually, the better comparison is to Samuel Fuller’s Big Red One, which takes the whole of the European theater in World War II and shrinks it down to a microscopic size.
With Aguirre, Herzog creates a sort of anti-epic. Certainly the story of a doomed Spanish expedition through the jungles of the Amazon in search of a city of gold that does not exist is the sort of plot line that could easily expand to the size of an epic, but Herzog, partially constrained as always by budget but primarily for artistic reasons, restricts the story to a claustrophobic size. The vastness of the Amazon jungle is whittled away until all that remains is a world as large as the raft on which the Conquistadors prop up themselves as easy targets for natives concealed in the lush greenness rising up like walls around them. Most of the movie takes place on this raft, with only tenuous forays onto the banks, and never then very far for as much as the Spaniards hate being trapped on the raft, they fear the jungle that much more. Confined to such a small space, and with no voice of reason to reel him back in to reality, Aguirre’s passion for conquest, his unrelenting desire for grandeur and power, pushes his far over the edge, until even as the last of his men lie starving and bleeding to death on the crumbling decks of the raft, he still imagines that he will rule the whole of the South American continent and launch an armada to seize territories now held by the Spanish crown, establishing himself as the greatest ruler of the largest empire of all time.
It is darkly ironic, tragic, and almost comedic in the blackest sense of the word that his delusions of glory just around the next river bend reach their apex as he stands alone, aimlessly adrift on a raft covered by cavorting monkeys.
Although Kinski’s Aguirre is at the center of the tempest, this is not a story of one man’s quest for glory and victory at the expense of his protesting men. Indeed his men are all too willing to follow him into the jungle and straight into madness in pursuit of the promise of wealth and power. When the wiser Ursua (Ruy Guerra), ostensibly the leader of the band, decides that it is a doomed expedition and all should turn back to meet up again with the greater body of the Spanish army and return to civilization, Aguirre’s soldiers are all too willing to comply in mutiny against Ursua. Even as they find themselves picked off one by one by natives or simply dying of starvation, none but a very few of the soldiers recognize the insurmountable madness that assures their failure. Even the clergyman Carvajal defers to Aguirre, partially out of fear but mostly because he, too, dreams of glory. Where the men’s glory is gold and Aguirre’s is power, Carvajal’s glory is the glory of God and in the conversion of the South American savages to Christianity.
Though everyone is guilty aboard the raft, the film is obviously commanded by Kinski, who is allowed to channel all his bug-eyed insanity into his damned and unsympathetic character, though never so much as to push it wildly over the top. Herzog and and Kinski may be two insane men making a movie about insane men, but Herzog keeps the film tightly focused and controlled, slowly paced and never prone to scene-chewing explosions of craziness. Never does Kinski outright rant and rave and knock things over. He is, rather, far more reserved with his insanity, and far more chilling. When action scenes do come, they are exceptionally brief. This is, after all, not a sprawling war epic but a character study and exploration of the power of greed to corrupt, blind, and drive mad.
Herzog’s conclusion is hazy, as the film leaves Aguirre in total defeat but still very much alive. He has lost everything and everyone around him, but still he goes on, certain that his destiny leads to nowhere but fame and power and immortality. He has learned nothing, enjoyed no moment of revelation or repentance or realization. Even the death of his own daughter, the one potential moment for the audience to perhaps feel a pang of sympathy for this madman, seems to affect Aguirre not in the least, or at least not enough to shake him from his delusions. Like the drunk driver who causes a car wreck in which everyone is killed yet he himself walks away unscathed, Aguirre remains.
I believe some people mistakenly go into Aguirre thinking it an adventure film. Such a notion is certain to result in disappointment. Herzog is, after all, something of an arthouse director, and he works on a low budget. Instead, this is a deconstruction of the adventure film, a psychological dissection of a larger-than-life character whose aspirations and dreams soar to the heights of what might be achieved even by a madman in an epic, even while he himself is mired in the hopelessness of the reality of the situation. There is no moment of heroism, no rousing rescue or battle. There are, instead, long, deliberate takes and beautiful cinematography. There are pauses, slow pacing, and an almost total lack of a musical score. A single dreamlike synthesizer theme occurs from time to time, but other than that the only music in the movie is the pipe playing of one of the native slaves. Herzog doesn’t want to excite you; he wants to engage you, or more accurately, to ensnare you and drag you along on this expedition. His narrative, although slowly paced, also keeps the viewer off-balance and unable to completely collect one’s thoughts. Characters are killed without comment by silent assassins from within the jungle. There is no fanfare, no death scene. We simply see them alive one minute and dead a few minutes later. Carvajal’s journal entries, which serve as the basis for the structure of the story, become more random and eventually cease altogether and he himself succumbs to jungle fever. Never has hard, edgy realism seemed so surreal.
Kinski is, it goes without saying, superb. Who better to play a megalomaniac madman than an actual megalomaniac madman? Apparently, at some point Kinski was being his usual difficult self, and Herzog got a decent performance out of him by pointing a gun at Kinski’s head and threatening to blow his brains out. There was no doubt in Kinski’s mind that Herzog would do it, and for that matter, there was no intention in Herzog’s mind not to do it if Klaus didn’t do his job. Much of the remainder of the cast is comprised of locals who were hired more or less off the street, though the part of Ursua was played by Ruy Guerra, a prominent director in South American cinema.
Herzog’s in-close direction works well with the overall story and creates the necessary atmosphere of claustrophobia and irritation. It’s no small feat that Thomas Mauch’s cinematography drags so much beauty out of such a confined space. Though he allows himself some sweeping shots of the river and the raft traveling down it toward its unsavory fate, his true gift is for staying close and using people and small moments as sources for brilliant, beautiful, and often frightening images. Something as gigantic as the Amazon River and the jungles around it beg for indulgent helicopter shots of lush green canopies with craggy mountain peaks jutting up from them, of great gorges and valleys and waterfalls. But Mauch never lets you see more than what the men themselves can see: the impenetrable jungle-choked banks, the muddy water, fleeting glimpses of bow-toting natives, and each other. What he does with such a reserved palette is astounding.
Aguirre, in short, is a trip straight to hell. It is a dip in the pool of lunacy. And as far as “arthouse adventure” goes, you’ll find no film finer. All the pieces, cracked as they may have been behind the camera, fall into place to create a lush, haunting tapestry. The separate madnesses of Herzog and Kinski may have driven them to the brink of murder, but the film is all the better for it, and somehow they manage, as they often did, to turn that friction, that hatred and lunacy and love, into a breathtaking work of art.