In an extended opening vista seemingly spied from the heavens, a conquistador expedition and its slaves file exhaustedly down the Andes Mountains. Some bodies wear steel helmets and breastplates; some are not guarded at all, though to the distant eye each is alike as paltry specks on a screen. Our immediate gaze regards this band of explorers as like a trail of ants, navigating a terrain far bigger than they could have ever imagined or hoped to traverse. It’s an apt similarity; the held image of these minuscule bodies making their way toward the Amazon River as mere pixels on a towering landmark encapsulates one of Werner Herzog’s main thematic through lines: of earth’s nature as an indifferent, hostile dwelling.
The scene could have been captured from outer space. How proper would it be, for aliens to view Herzog’s early masterwork, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, as the sole documentation of human life on earth? The picture is near enough a wildlife piece, a study on the intrinsic madness of human compulsion and obsession in uncharted waters. We begin hustled amidst a determined collective hunting for the fabled City of Gold, El Dorado, and end in the midst of the same, now deliriously fragmented troupe, no nearer to their destination yet the furthest reach from sanity.
In with the charge – and fated to rebel against his superiors – is Don Lope de Aguirre, venomously portrayed by the serpentine Klaus Kinski. The infamously uncontrollable actor is said to have terrorised both cast and crew on set, throwing frequent temper tantrums that eventually drove Herzog to threaten him with murder if he dared storm off the set. You can see a flavour of Kinski’s real-life outbursts in some of the earlier scenes where he harangues the Indian slaves for moving too slowly – or at least not in sync with his erratic rhythms – through the forest. They’re slowly dying from the beat of the climate, through marching through an immense heat and against a thick mud in which they come stuck and sink. The merciless throes of nature – exemplified in the violent river rapids whose whooshes and crashes persist at all times – provoke from the outset, spurring Kinski’s Aguirre onward in an attempt to claim El Dorado for himself, imbued with a disastrous sense of invulnerability.
Aguirre does initially begin as a small figure within the frame: quiet, reserved and very possibly scheming in silence. He openly expresses doubt over the expedition’s chances with the rapids, though in time his madness will drag the others to their end. Along the journey to wit’s end, he usurps group leader Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra), and creates a small offshoot of Spanish society with the rotund, hapless Guzman (Peter Berling) installed as emperor. Aguirre may refer to himself as the Wrath of God, but his promise of riches to those who comply is a recognisably devilish ploy, perched on the shoulder.
Herzog retains an amused observation of these follies with detached, minimalist filming, giving free rein for all parties to to display their patently absurd human impulses for the benefit of any audience, extra-terrestrial or otherwise. The camera isn’t always so uninvolved, though; it’s often situated in amongst the crew on a raft thrown to and fro by harsh rapids, as if to extend to us the feeling of inclusion.
A ruthless persistence at uncovering the elusive City of Gold is the grain of hope to which Herzog holds a magnifying glass; such is his astonishment at the striving of man against nature, and his affection for the eccentricities of a driven force such as the madman Aguirre, whose fire is fuelled from the ferocious energy of Kinski.
It’s a remarkable coincidence that Aguirre, the Wrath of God is rereleased this week alongside The Iceman, which I reviewed yesterday. The leading men are the first point of comparison: Kinski was Herzog’s great muse, and Michael Shannon has been alluded to as his heir since 2009’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done – and partly down to his menacing expressive countenance. The main difference likely lies in their professionalism: I strongly doubt Shannon and Herzog spent much of their film shoot threatening to kill each other.
The second point of overlap is God’s business. Whereas Michael Shannon’s Kuklinski sees himself as God’s nemesis, a supervillain intent on breaking free from the tyranny of fate, Kinski’s Aguirre is God’s wrath incarnate, a blessed warmonger and master of the elements. As expedition chronicler Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) puts it, “We have decided to put an end to the quirks of fate.” Aguirre may benefit from Herzog’s non-judgemental camera, though he fails to account for the director’s unwavering belief of an uncaring nature and an equally dubious heavenly father. “I am Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” Kinski bellows at the height of his delirium. “The earth I walk upon sees me and quakes.” Unbeknownst to him, the final DVD chapters are entitled ‘Ship of Fools’ and ‘The Jungle Triumphant’. There was only ever one way this was going to end, but much like Herzog, we can’t blame the fool for trying – nor can we afford to look away.
Werner Herzog Season runs throughout June & July at BFI Southbank, London.