If one were curating a definitive list of essential films, or even a muddled constantly changing one, you would be remiss to not include a film by Werner Herzog. To be honest Herzog would deserve a mention if only for the part he played in the development of The Act of Killing. However before he was producing documentaries about Indonesian genocide, Werner Herzog was directing movies. He’s a talented and renowned director with a well-respected and admired filmography. I’ve only seen three of his films, out of a list peppered with classics. I’ve seen Nosferatu the Vampyre, a luxurious and historical version of the Dracula myth that I deeply appreciated; Fitzcarraldo, a beautiful vision of mania with a production history that mirrored the themes; and now Aguirre, The Wrath of God, a grim and elegiac film about Spanish conquistadores.
Aguirre, The Wrath of God predated Fitzcarraldo by a decade, but it was hampered by many of the same problems that would go on to effect Fitzcarraldo’s production. In both films one of the key problems was the star, Klaus Kinski. Werner Herzog had lived in an apartment next to Kinski’s, and cast the actor in Aguirre based on his recollections of the actor’s furious raging and manic behaviour. As Herzog recalls, he sent Kinski the script and received a call shortly after: “Between three and four in the morning, the phone rang…It took me at least a couple of minutes before I realized that it was Kinski who was the source of this inarticulate screaming. And after an hour of this, it dawned on me that he found it the most fascinating screenplay and wanted to be Aguirre.”
Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog disagreed right from the start. Kinski wanted to portray Aguirre as a more violent, unhinged, unrestrained madman. Werner Herzog wanted something a little subtler, something brooding and ominous as opposed to perpetually explosive. Herzog got his way through any means (something of a recurring theme) and would deliberately annoy Klaus Kinski before takes. The actor would get wildly upset, then exhaust himself raging, at which point Werner Herzog would get the shots he needed.
This combative relationship extended to gunplay. Annoyed at a noisy tent (crew members were playing cards), Klaus Kinski shot at the tent, taking the tip off of a crew member’s finger. There’s a fairly apocryphal story that claims Werner Herzog forced Kinski to act at gunpoint. In fact, according to Herzog, when Kinski threatened to quit (because Herzog refused to fire someone who annoyed Kinski), Herzog threatened to shoot Kinski then commit suicide if the temperamental actor didn’t continue.
Most of the film’s production seems like a series of desperate struggles and trickery in retrospect, with Werner Herzog clawing his way past any obstacles. Right from the get-go the script Herzog wrote in a passionate weekend-long burst was damaged when it was thrown-up on. The marred pages were tossed away, and Herzog claims he still doesn’t completely recall what was written on them.
The low budget hemmed in Herzog too, and forced him to utilize desperate measures. Desperate measures starting with the theft of a camera from a film school. Herzog’s defence was as follows: “It was a very simple 35mm camera, one I used on many other films, so I do not consider it a theft. For me, it was truly a necessity. I wanted to make films and needed a camera. I had some sort of natural right to this tool. If you need air to breathe, and you are locked in a room, you have to take a chisel and hammer and break down a wall. It is your absolute right.”
Possibly the funniest thing Werner Herzog did was to con someone out of four hundred monkeys. He’d payed people in several locations in the Amazon to catch a total of four hundred monkeys. He was offering them half the money for the monkeys up front and the other half on delivery. However the trappers realized that they could make more money if they pocketed half of the monkey money and sold the monkeys again for full price. The monkeys were sold to someone in L.A. and Herzog arrived at the airport as the monkeys were being loaded up for their trip. He barrelled in and claimed he was a veterinarian, one who presumably worked for the airport. He claimed the monkeys needed shots before they could leave the country. When the handlers unloaded the monkeys, Herzog had them all lifted over to his jeep, at which point he drove away. After getting the shot he needed, the film’s final shot no less, he released the monkeys back into the rainforest.
Besides the small budget necessitating camera and monkey theft, it also meant the team couldn’t afford extras or stuntmen. So all the mountainous ranges, dangerous jungles, and rustic rafts in the film were filled with untrained actors and crew members. When the river flooded and destroyed the terrifying crude rafts the crew was using, a scene was shot for the film incorporating the flood and the rebuilding of the rafts. The film was shot in chronological order, so the actors’ experiences traversing the Amazon mirrored the characters in the film. The film was originally intended to be dubbed in English, hopefully gaining it a wider release. The man responsible for the dubbing left Peru with the money set aside for the task. Afterwards the whole film was dubbed over again in German. Werner Herzog felt Klaus Kinski’s asking price for the dubbing was too high, and replaced his audio with that of another actor.
Still, despite the struggles Werner Herzog and his crew had to overcome, nothing about the film feels compromised or weakened, instead the whole effect is terrifyingly successful and engaging, resulting in a film that is frequently considered one of the best films ever made.
The film follows one of my favourite structures, what I will characterize as a Driving Progression. It’s when a movie follows a hyper-linear progression, just inexorably driving forward. It’s frequently tied to films where the main characters are travelling, but not necessarily. It’s also a structure that’s tied to a particular tonal treatment. This sort of film can’t really jump around in tone all that much, it can merely play with the levels and dynamics of a consistent tone. Think of, say, a Swans’ song off the album To Be Kind. On that album the songs tend to introduce an initial groove and continue it for the whole song, adding new instrumentation and dynamics as it goes along. Nicolas Winding Refn makes movies like that. Two-Lane Blacktop works like that. It’s an interesting tonal choice that, in the right hands, adds an intensely poignant, elegiac quality.
An inexorable advance through the Amazon River constitutes the bulk of the film. The plot of the film is fairly simplistic. A group of conquistadores, with some of their wives and daughters, and many native slaves, make their way through the Amazon. Beset by problems, including the harsh environment and the dangerous locals, the head of the group decides to send a scouting party out to assess the miles ahead, and bring information back so that the group can decide whether or not it’s worth advancing further. The leader of the scouting group brings his wife. The group includes Aguirre, who brings his daughter with him. They take a handful of other men, their one African slave, and many native slaves. They set off down the Amazon River on makeshift log rafts.
One of the rafts gets caught in a current and repeatedly batters against the rocky wall. The other rafts pull off to the other side, and set a small group to work up the bank and find a way to cross the river and rescue the trapped men. Aguirre grows frustrated with the orders and asks his loyal goon to clean the cannon that was brought along for the trip. A brief burst of cannon fire later and the raft is nothing but splinters, and the men are nothing but corpses.
It’s on the banks of the Amazon that Aguirre stages his coup. When someone forgets to tie down the rafts they get swept away in the night, and Aguirre gives the order to build new ones. This causes some tension between him and the party’s leader. More so when Aguirre suggests to the group that they shouldn’t ever turn back, but should strive forward and find El Dorado, the conquest that will outshine Cortés’. There is a rallying of men that ends with the former leader being shot and caged. Aguirre manipulates a few people and ensures that someone else is “elected” Emperor of El Dorado. Presumably then Aguirre could claim that this new leader, Don de Guzmán, was to blame for the act of rebellion. Guzmán insists on holding a trial to decide the fate of the old leader, despite the fact that Aguirre insists he be killed. The trial is a farce but, when it ends, Guzmán decides to be merciful and forgo the death penalty, a choice that infuriates Aguirre.
They go down the river again, this time on a single large raft. Guzmán insists on eating like a king, while those beneath him stare and grow discontent. As they travel down the river they run into cannibals several times. On one occasion, arrows begin whistling from the trees without warning. The crew begins firing all their guns blindly into the woods in the hopes of scaring the natives. Later they land by a village and realize as they loot the abandoned village that they’re looking at the homes of cannibals. Disgusted, they leave. At one point the raft is approached by two friendly natives in a wooden canoe. The preacher (who narrates the whole film) procures his Bible and begins attempting to convert the natives. He displays the Bible and announces it to contain the word of god. One of the natives holds the Bible to his ear and comments that it makes no sound. With a cry of “blasphemy” the crew shoots the natives dead without a single moment’s hesitation.
Guzmán continues to gorge himself, then, in a moment of rage, pushes the crew’s only horse ashore. This is the final straw and, when he’s next seen, he’s dead, strangled on the deck of the raft, right by the outhouse. Aguirre names himself the new emperor. The raft goes ashore again, this time to hang the original leader of the scouting party. It’s after this the group goes ashore and explores the cannibal village, and are attacked. Inés, the wife of the scouting party’s original leader, walks dejectedly into the jungle here, never to be seen again. The quest for El Dorado continues undeterred, leading the crew towards their doom with all the power of an impending waterfall.
It’s this driving force of fate that leaves the crew starving and begins infecting them with fevers. They begin to doubt everything they see, a fact worsened by the surreal sights they see. Off the shore of the Amazon, tangled in the branch of a tall jungle tree, is a wooden sailboat. Aguirre briefly becomes obsessed, seeing the strong boat as their means of completing their mission, and eventually conquering new lands elsewhere. The fever claims the rest of the men though, as arrows fired from the shores pierce their breasts. They simply look down and wonder aloud if the arrows are real. Eventually Aguirre stands alone on the devastated raft, clutching his daughter’s corpse and surrounded by monkeys.
The film is powerful, poignant, and stupendous. Everything about it is carefully crafted. One such striking detail comes when Aguirre clutches his shot daughter. His hand strains just under where the arrow has entered her, and the sound of straining wood can be heard above all else. The film is a cutting and epic vision of mania and misplaced passion, filled with gripping scenes and lavish beauty.