Over the years much has been made of the rocky relationship between director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski. At various times they would scream at one another, point guns at each other with threats of violence, and overall give the impression of not enjoying their time together. As a director myself, I’ve had some collaborative relationships which were less than pleasant, but at worst they escalated into temper tantrums and hurt feelings, never violence. But I can understand the pain of working with a difficult actor, and everything points toward that being the case in the Herzog-Kinski relationship. By all accounts it seems Kinski was the madman, not Herzog, and that Herzog merely escalated his behavior in order to keep the actor in line. That’s no excuse for holding a gun to someone’s head, which Herzog readily admits to having done, but it’s how it happened. I’m not here to critique what happened, merely to discuss and document it.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God begins like a travelogue. First we are shown a long line of explorers descending a mountain, then various shots of the expedition moving through woods, and then close-ups of the raging river they must cross. All of this is shot in a “cinema-verite,”fly-on-the-wall style akin to the films of Les Blank or D.A. Pennebaker. This makes Aguirre feel less like a “movie” and more like a documentary. It is as if Herzog has transported us into the world of the Spanish Conquistadors and their search for Aztec Gold. That is what this film is about, by the way, about the search for the lost city of gold, El Dorado. This search is futile, by the way, as the film opens with a narration explaining how this story is a myth invented by the aboriginals to lure the Spanish into the jungles of the Amazon. From the very beginning we know that everything about this movie is doomed. It is a terrifying note to begin a film with. The next terrifying note, and possibly the most terrifying of all, is the introduction of the main character: Don Lope de Aguirre. He is a soldier in the company searching for the gold and from the first frame we see of him we can see madness bubbling in his eyes. Whether this madness was a front worn by the actor, or the nature of the actor itself is difficult to say. Herzog has made comments regarding how he doesn’t care if an actor is a criminal, or even crazy, so long as they can play the part in a realistic way.
From the word go Kinski has the eyes of a crazy man, and this fact becomes more evident with every word, every gesture, and every moment. Slowly Aguirre assumes control of the expedition and even has a new man elected as the leader as a puppet. Aguirre is a mastermind, a madman who lusts after cursed gold and will do anything to get it. The party at one point decides to go back, and this is when Aguirre reshuffles the deck in his favor and has a weak man installed as the leader — the “Emperor of El Dorado” — of the expedition. Aguirre convinces his men to break their relationship with the Spanish crown and to start a new empire in the jungle, seated in the City of Gold which they are surly on their way to discover. Unfortunately, as I said earlier, we the audience know this is all futile and the city does not — could not? — exist. So, when members of the expedition begin to die — get killed by the natives — it comes as no surprise to the viewers.
Nearing the end of the film, the man who was elected Emperor of El Dorado sits on his makeshift throne aboard the raft and marks off on a piece of paper the portions of the newly discovered land he has taken into his kingdom. He remarks that New Spain will be much bigger and grander than Spain is — that it is already bigger and grander. Except it isn’t. At the end of the film Aguirre, after the rest of the crew has died of fever or been killed, stands alone on this raft and explains his plans to conquer everything around him. But his kingdom is not the banks of the Amazon, or even South America itself: his kingdom is a small wooden island, floating off into oblivion, never to be seen again.
Ultimately everything Aguirre hoped for: riches, power, and fame (“Remember Cortez?” he says at one point), escapes him and in his final moments he finds himself afloat down a river, in a jungle from which no man ever escapes. Aguirre views himself as the Wrath of God, justice incarnate, but we see him for what he truly is: a blathering, power-hungry fool; driven mad by his own pride. The influence of Conrad’s book “Heart of Darkness” can be found here, and the DNA of Aguirre, the Wrath of God can be seen in Apocalypse Now (which is an adaptation of Conrad’s novel). But also this movie gives us a glimpse at the brutality of the catholics and their bloodthirsty view of evangelism: when an aboriginal is told that the Bible is the word of God, he holds the book to his ear and remarks “it does not speak.” The expedition’s catholic priest then orders that his head be chopped off for blasphemy. Right before they behead him, however, we see the priest give the man last rites. I wonder who gives a dying priest last rites?