Aguirre, the Wrath of God
The most nagging question we encounter in Aguirre, the Wrath of God is whether or not Don Lope de Aguirre, a Spanish knight leading a battalion of soldiers into the Peruvian jungles to find the lost city of El Dorado, makes for a plausible character. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is mad, because A) he is played by Klaus Kinski, the infamously mad actor who at the time of filming believed that he was Christ reborn, and B) he mutters lines like, “We will stage history, the same way as other men stage plays,” and means them. Frankly, it’s impossible to take Aguirre seriously. He fails as both a protagonist and a human being. As he moves about the Peruvian locals, barking orders to his soldiers and weaving together promises of fame, wealth, and land, we see a caricature—a crooked, monstrous creature who we are incapable of empathizing with on any human level, save his only three recognizable traits: Greed, violence, and madness.
Yet the ultimate, terrifying revelation of Aguirre, the Wrath of God is that greed, violence, and madness are enough for us to know this man and to connect with his vision. We cannot look at him and see a plausible character—we cannot penetrate into his psyche to learn what would fuel a man to become such a black heart of darkness. Director/writer Werner Herzog requires us to do neither: Aguirre’s only three discernable characteristics, greed, violence, and madness, are enough for us to never doubt his plausibility and to compel us to take his journey deeper and deeper down the Amazon with him. Common sense tells us that no character could be this un-complex and so dedicated to evil without coming across as simplistic as, say, a James Bond villain. Yet Aguirre’s greed is so strong that it is infectious, both to us and his crew; his violence is so assured that he resonates with total, unnerving authority, to the point that even we the distant spectators cower before him in fear. We cannot question him: He is the sum total of every despicable trait that could possible exist in a human being, yet we know this man. He is the darkest part of us that none of us will ever admit to having. He is not the devil on our shoulder; he is the chaotic distortion within our souls.
Aguirre’s madness, the third part of his character, comes in the form of the Peruvian jungle, which has a seemingly endless hostility that equals his own. It follows the same journey that Aguirre takes—quiet at first, unknown, attractively mysterious. As the film progresses, the jungle grows more and more hostile, frantic, frenzied. This wilderness, we learn from a local Indian, goes on forever: “God, in His anger, never finished this place,” he cautions Aguirre, who does not heed the warning. God, in His anger, didn’t finish Aguirre either; perhaps he is drawn to El Dorado because he needs to know that there is something at the end of this world, some place where absolution is found and God’s work is finished. Perhaps this obsession to complete ourselves is what drives us all to greed and, when we can’t find El Dorado, violence. And the violence doesn’t beget the madness, which was always present deep within us: It simply unlocks it. And as we approach the threshold of God’s unfinished creation, the door containing that madness bursts open and frees our rage.
Opening narration informs us that El Dorado is and always has been a ploy invented by the Indians to drive Europeans—who the Indians now know are clearly not gods—deeper and deeper into the wilderness. Knowing the white man’s lust for gold, the creation of a lost city of gold becomes a brilliant strategy. It is an impenetrable myth that is always around the next corner, always farther down the river. Aguirre and his men rebel from the Spanish government by refusing to turn back from their quest when ordered, because El Dorado’s fabled nature—hills of gold and jewels for the taking—is enough to push them forward. Certainly as the film progresses and becomes more hostile and chaotic, Aguirre and his men come to an understanding that they may never find this lost city, but this revelation only further fuels their thirst for greed: “If El Dorado doesn’t exist, we’ll take over every village and tree,” Aguirre rasps, and we’re not sure if his men follow him out of fear and desperation, or if they really believe him. The answer probably doesn’t matter—by the time their grand delusions begin to crumble, they have descended so far into Hell that they cannot turn back. Their greed and madness plunge them deeper into their fate, every step farther and farther away from home.
The progression into Hell is essential here, and we are incapable of ignoring it: Aguirre, the Wrath of God is one of the bleakest films ever made about the dark, inexplicable madness found within the human soul. Such darkness, Herzog reveals, will only inevitably lead to Hell on Earth. Aguirre was made in the 1970s, probably the only decade in cinematic history when such a film could have been made. It was an era that ran rampant with the residue of a controversial, bloody war, uncontrollable drug abuse, frantic consumerism, government scandals, and a general distrust of world leaders—a time when it was easy to believe that Earth was turning into a Hell ruled by greed, violence, and madness.
In such a moment, we could at least count on our great artists to weave logic and reason into the nonsensical madness. Countless filmmakers worked to create time capsules of this era, to record and perhaps to warn future generations. Of such films, there are five that stand out as undisputed, visionary masterpieces: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the uncompromising look at a lonely, psychotic man living in the streets of a drug and crime-riddled New York City; George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, about four survivors who escape from a global apocalypse by locking themselves into a shopping mall and basking in its resources; Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, about dysfunction and selfishness trapping a family helplessly within the confounds of their claustrophobic house; Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a philosophical retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set in Vietnam; and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, which took the ideas of these previous films and stripped them down into their most basic, troubling point: The human race is its own worst enemy, and we are the instigators of our own misfortunes. We can blame God, or even the Devil, but the truth of the matter is that the Devil is us, and God is seemingly silent (it is curious to note that the narrator of Aguirre is a cowardly priest who admits that the church will always side with the powerful in order to stay alive). Watch these films together, and save Aguirre for last—Herzog’s vision not only parallels the other filmmakers’ observations, but he completes them.
This was the first of five collaborations between Herzog and Klaus Kinski, and it is perhaps the best demonstration of Herzog’s masterful control over his craft. Like Ingmar Bergman and Sergio Leone, Herzog understands the canvas of the human face, and edits his film as a combination of vast, desolate jungle images and close-ups of Kinski, more twisted and contorted the deeper he descends into the Amazon. Herzog also makes use of the silent hostility of nature, often by simply circling Aguirre and his crew on their raft as it floats hopelessly down the river. They are engulfed by chaos, and we never doubt that Aguirre is mad for believing that he has control over these elements. At least the opening and closing shots are some of the most haunting in all of cinema: A long line of Spanish knights, Peruvian slaves, and monks, all far away and faceless, emerging from the mist and descending a mountain, and a long, quiet shot of Aguirre as the last living man on his raft, everyone else succumb to disease. Little monkeys dance around the corpses almost mockingly.
Troubles on the set are now stuff of legend (though somewhat overpowered by the infamy surrounding Fitzcarraldo)—stories range from Herzog directing Kinski at gunpoint (“I had the gun,” Kinski insists in his autobiography) to Herzog shooting the entire film on a 35mm camera stolen from his film school (that one is true, Herzog claims). Yet somehow these stories only heighten the delirium that Aguirre achieves instead of consuming it. By the time the clear, linear filmmaking of the first and second acts are replaced by the mystifying, trance-like images of the third (the two most haunting: A prisoner being hung on a vine, and a ship appearing on the top of a tree), it is easy to believe that Herzog, Kinski, and the crew had all gone mad—certainly all of the characters and the jungle had.
But the truth is, difficult filming conditions and a Christ complex notwithstanding, this is probably the most controlled of all of Kinski’s performances. He wasn’t afraid to ham it up (appropriately so) in Fitzcarraldo and Woyzeck, he utterly lost himself in the character of Nosferatu, and by the time he acted in the underrated Cobra Verde, he seemed nearly out of control. But as Aguirre, he subtly, thoughtfully channels his own personal rage and hostility into Herzog’s camera to deliver one of cinema’s greatest performances. At the beginning of this article, I wrote that Aguirre is capable saying the most ridiculous lines of greed and glory and still come across as both plausible and terrifying. This is more difficult to do than it might sound; Aguirre is a character like Adolph Hitler or Jim Jones, who we wouldn’t believe stories about if they hadn’t really existed. Aguirre, of course, didn’t exist, but Kinski’s wide, passionate eyes and twisted, seemingly crippled body convinces us that he could have, and in turn makes historical villains of great evil like Hitler and Jones more feasible in our minds.
It is difficult to watch the control of Kinski’s knight here, in his first film with Herzog, and the riotous rage of his slave trader in Cobra Verde, their last film together, and see the same actor. How much of each was really a performance is difficult to ascertain; Herzog seems to believe that Kinski simply grew madder over time, and the director felt a compulsion to film the actor’s descent. As a result, watching all five Herzog/Kinski films together paints a picture of Kinski’s descent into the madness and violence of hell that closely parallels the journey that Aguirre takes. Kinski continued to return to Herzgo because he claimed it was “his destiny;” I suspect the truth of the matter is that Kinski felt the safest and most contained behind Herzog’s camera, able to emit his fury into a character for a director who knew how to channel the most disturbed aspects of his nature.
Comparisons to Herzog’s other jungle epics Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde are also inevitable, and revealing. Aguirre is the best of the three films, and is the springboard that Herzog used to jump into his other two great tales of madness. Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde are certainly more personal works: Fitzcarraldo is an allegory for Herzog’s own visionary, self-induced trials with nature, and Verde is Herzog’s examination of Kinski’s madness at its peak. If those films were respectively about the director and actors personal obsessions, Aguirre is about the root of obsession in general. We all have an El Dorado that we wish to find and conquer, and we are all capable of falling victim to insanity in our quest to conquer it. Aguirre represents the madness in us all, including the personal madness revealed in Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde for Herzog and Kinski. We accept Aguirre’s ramblings of fame and fortune, outlandish though they are, because they are our ramblings. We embrace his Hell because we are all in Hell. We're beginning to see what Kurtz meant when he looked beyond our world into the next and uttered, "The horror, the horror," and Herzog forces us to wonder if these words really do our nature justice at all.
Klaus Kinski: Don Lope de Agguire
Del Negro: Brother Gaspar de Carvajal
Ruy Guerra: Don Pedro de Ursua
Helena Rojo: Ines
Peter Berling: Don Fernando de Guzman
Ingram International Films presents a film by Werner Herzog Filmproduktion. Written and directed by Werner Herzog. No M.P.A.A. rating—contain disturbing images, violence, and brief language. Running time: 100 minutes. Original West German theatrical release date: December 29, 1972. In German, with English subtitles.