‘Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes’, to use its stern-sounding original German title, was Werner Herzog’s first collaboration with Klaus Kinski and saddled both of them with reputations that neither ever really shook off:
Fraught production – check.
Inhospitable location – check (Herzog and Kinski would return to the jungle ten years later for the epic ‘Fitzcarraldo’).
Maverick director vs. egomaniacal actor – check.
The conflict between Herzog and Kinski continued across another four films, and was revisited, years after Kinski’s death, in Herzog’s ‘My Best Fiend’, a film that is part-documentary, part-black-Valentine.
‘Aguirre’ is set in 1560 and chronicles the journey, deep into the Peruvian rainforest, of an invading Spanish army in search of the legendary (and determinedly non-existent) city of El Dorado. The film opens with an extraordinary shot of a thousand Conquistadores in full armour and their captured indian guides/sherpas hauling pigs, horses, llamas, provisions and cannons down from the Andes into the jungle. The route is treacherous, the mountainside shrouded in mist. Herzog films their descent almost documentary-style: he’s not trying to impress by directing a big, show-offy scene; he’s simply recording their progress.
And that’s what he does for the rest of the film, recording not only their descent from the Andes, but their descent into treachery, distrust, death and – in Aguirre’s case – madness. But without any melodrama or moralizing. There are no big, actorly, grandstanding scenes. Even Kinski, never the subtlest performer, gives a controlled, gaunt-eyed performance (Herzog has said that he dealt with Kinski’s excesses by baiting him before the cameras rolled, letting him rant himself into exhaustion, then filming the scene).
There are notable performances, too, from Roy Guerra as Don Pedro de Ursua, whose leadership Aguirre overthrows; and Peter Berling as the pitiful Don Fernando de Guzman, whom Aguirre handpicks to replace Ursua. Aguirre takes his rebellion to extremes, declaring that the group are no longer answerable to church or state, and even goes as far as “crowning” Guzman King of the New World. Watch Peter Berling’s face in this scene: he communicates cowardice (Guzman knows he’s nothing but Aguirre’s puppet), misery and helplessness in just a few seconds without a hint of overacting. Guerra, too, effectively suggests the wounded Ursua’s struggle to retain dignity while the expedition – originally under his charge – draws closer to self-destruction the further into the jungle they penetrate.
But the real stars of the show are Herzog himself and cinematographer Thomas Mauch. ‘Aguirre’ bristles with stunning imagery. There’s the fog-wreathed mountainside at the start. There’s a hypnotically brilliant shot which holds on the tumbling brown river, muddy banks overhung with vegetation to either side, before cutting to a close-up of churning water – these two simple shots occupy over a minute of screen time. There’s the jungle itself – forget the lush, verdant expanse of Hollywood productions; Herzog’s jungle is dark, humid, visceral and alive.
And then there’s the unforgettable final image: Aguirre stumbling dazed around a slowly sinking raft overrun with chittering monkeys, delivering a crazed monologue: “I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. We shall rule this entire continent. We shall endure. I am the Wrath of God.” His daughter, probably mercifully for her, is dead by this point. So is everyone else. The only thing that endures is Aguirre’s madness.