After his gonzo film-making expeditions to the Sahara and Lanzarate in FATA MORGANA and EVEN DWARVES STARTED SMALL, Werner Herzog put together a tiny crew of eight people and headed to Peru to film his hastily written feature, AGUIRRE WRATH OF GOD. Starring German actor Klaus Kinski, in the first of a five-film collaboration, this movie is arguably Herzog's most admired and most famous. Viewers have responded to its rough and ready look and the delicious post-modern irony of watching a film about losing your mind in the jungle in the midst of an overly ambitious project being made by film-makers losing their mind in the jungle in the midst of an overly ambitious project. AGUIRRE is arthouse cinema's APOCALYPSE NOW, with an industry of mythic tales about its insane production almost more fascinating than the film itself.
The film opens in sixteenth century Latin America, with a group of Spanish conquistadors looking to claim El Dorado for the Spanish crown. They do so in heavy armour, with canons on rafts, bringing along their women and caged chickens. Don Aguirre (Kinski) leads the scouting party in a mutiny and takes them further into the jungle, into desperation and insanity. As the movie unfolds, Aguirre's pychopathic ambitions become clear: he is murderous and harbours a fantasy of founding a new pure race with his symbolically blonde daughter.
I guess if you were being fairly simplistic about it, you could take AGUIRRE as being a political film about how self-serving and basically dumb the conquistadors were - "Isn't that cannon going to rust?" etc. But I think this isn't really a movie about colonial oppression at all. Rather, it's about a charismatic man who has become untethered from reality in an environment where violence is sudden and anonymous. (Notably, we never see the face of the Indians.) So untethered that he even refuses his own death as a reality. Aguirre is the ultimate exemplar of the Will to Power. And, on an even more profound level, AGUIRRE is the story of Herzog making the film. It is a movie that depicts the folly of making an epic film in a jungle. Who is more crazy: the conquistador taking a cannon on a raft; or Dino de Laurentis taking a crew out to Chihuahua to film DUNE? There are many great films about the film-making process - not least 8 1/2. But typically these pit the artist against the commercial studio bosses, with the added pressures of a wife and a mistress. In AGUIRRE, the line between Kinski and Aguirre and Herzog is blurred. Herzog is pitting the film-maker against nature and the chaos of the void itself.
That may all sound a bit pretentious, but I think it's the only way to approach this film. If you go for a straight reading of the film, you're going to find it insubstantial and poorly made. The visuals, the sound, the hasty framing - it all looks pretty shabby by modern standards - and too many actions taken by the characters seem against character and rather random. But taken as a whole - as an immersive endeavour - the movie just works. And it works not just because you feel that Herzog is going to take it wherever it leads - but because of the charisma of Kinski himself. You watch this German guy which his chiseled features hunkering down in his helmet, looking daggers, scheming and plotting and you can almost feel the febrile insanity of it all. In SUNSET BOULEVARD, Norma Desmond says, "We didn't need dialogue, we had faces." She would have loved AGUIRRE.
AGUIRRE WRATH OF GOD played Cannes 1973.