Werner Herzog, “Aguirre, Wrath of God” (1972)
A dramatic fictional rendition of the 1560 expedition of the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Ursua down the Maranon and Amazon rivers, and his overthrow and murder by rebel soldiers led by Lope de Aguirre, becomes a study of the pursuit of impossible ambitions and obsession to the point of madness and destruction in the hands of German director Werner Herzog. The film brought early acclaim to Herzog as a director and to lead actor Klaus Kinski for his acting, and was the first of five film collaborations that started with “Aguirre …” and ended with “Cobra Verde” in the late 1980’s. The two might have made more films together if Kinski hadn’t died in 1991: though Herzog and Kinski had a love-hate relationship to the extent they both apparently plotted to kill each other while working on “Aguirre …”, they at least respected each other professionally to want to work together again on further movie projects.
The first several frames of “Aguirre …”, where the actors are traipsing down a narrow path on a steep mountain side, carrying cannon and a heavy sedan-chair among other things, are at once hair-raising for sheer audacity and the danger involved, and breath-taking for the scenery. The expedition that’s just come down this way is under the command of Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles), younger brother of the more famous Francisco who found and brought down the Inca empire in Peru, in search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado. Separated from the nearest Christian settlement by hundreds of miles, Pizarro splits his expedition into groups and puts one such group, 40 men in total, under the control of Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) with Lope de Aguirre (Kinski) as second in charge, to go on ahead by rafting downstream. Joining this group are Ursua’s wife Inez (Helena Rojo), Aguirre’s teenage daughter Flores (Cecilia Rivera), the monk Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) and an aristocrat Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling). Almost immediately after Ursua’s group starts its trip, it runs into trouble: one raft with several men gets stranded in an eddy in the Amazon river and the rest of the group debate as to how to rescue them with Aguirre suggesting the raft be abandoned. A rescue group eventually reaches the other side of the river to rescue the stranded men but discover they have been killed mysteriously. The rest of the rafts then get washed away by the river and Ursua tries to return to Pizarro’s main expedition but Aguirre, eager to find El Dorado and win fame and wealth, leads a rebellion and replaces Ursua with Guzman as nominal leader. Ursua is tried in a kangaroo court and found “guilty” but Guzman as judge spares his life.
Aguirre fetes the foolish Guzman as emperor of a new territory and the rebels formally proclaim their breakaway from the rule of Spain. They build a new raft and sail down the Amazon but over time, starvation, isolation and attacks by hostile natives who never confront the soldiers directly (there are no actual scenes of fighting in the film) take their toll on the men. Yet they continue their quest for El Dorado as Aguirre is an oppressive leader who punishes disobedience and disloyalty with death and only Inez de Ursua dares to challenge his authority. Guzman is found dead, presumably murdered, and Ursua follows him soon after in death. Shortly after, Inez deserts the failing group. Eventually an attack by unseen Amazon natives wipes out the group including Flores and only Aguirre is left alive, nursing his obsession and going mad as the raft continues its fruitless journey downstream.
Viewers expecting much melodrama, frenzied action, shouting, hammy acting and bloody scenes will be very disappointed: the whole film is shot and directed very minimally so it has the air of a nature documentary or home movie. Acting and dialogue are minimal as well with a sketchy, mostly improvised narrative. The film in its last 30 minutes has the quality of a bad dream and a magic realist moment of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez sort comes late in the proceedings when the starving and delirious soldiers spy in the distance a galleon stuck in a tree far above the ground and start arguing over whether the scene is for real or they’re just hallucinating. Of course the symbolism of that sighting is completely lost on the men, let alone the immediate physical dangers it portends. Kinski’s performance as Aguirre is restrained, studied and calculating: his madness is more implied than open in the increasingly contorted way he stands and struts about and in the way he looks at the camera in close-ups, his head aslant, his eyes glassy and staring. Originally Kinski wanted to play Aguirre as a crazed maniac and clashed with Herzog over his portrayal; Herzog allowed Kinski to blow his top off and then filmed Kinski after he had calmed down. I’m not sure that I’d accept Kinski’s interpretation if he’d been allowed his way: I might have found it shocking at first, amusing second and then tiresome and campy. Under Herzog’s interpretation, Aguirre’s madness seems more plausible, as much caused by circumstances as the man’s own ambitions, and there’s a suggestion that even after the story has ended, Aguirre’s madness deteriorates further with the arrival of the monkeys. The boredom of life stuck with other barmy people on the raft, the frustration of following a dream that may not be real after all, the effects of starvation, fear of the forest and the unknown, and ever-present death … all these make more impression with matter-of-fact direction than a more conventional story-telling approach might have done.
The minimal camerawork with its long shots enables the Amazonian environment to emerge as a significant character in its own right: the river traps a number of men in a whirlpool and the forests along its sides hide dangers and unimaginable horrors beneath their silent leafy canopy. Staring at the bland, banal greenness all day long, knowing what terrors lurked within and expecting death at any moment, any sane person might go clean round the bend. Small wonder that Inez, once ashore again and in some kind of trance, wanders away into the forest and allows it to swallow her up. You become aware of the camera only when it starts to circle the raft at the very end, mimicking the whirlpool that trapped the other raft early on and emphasising Aguirre’s extreme isolation and descent into madness.
Understated and minimal as it is, the film’s not likely to appeal to most people expecting a strong narrative and lots of continuous action and dialogue that push the plot. Yet for all the long shots where you’re just looking at trees, people’s immobile faces, reflections in the river or even a mouse collecting its babies, the pace of the film is surprisingly fast for something that seems so static. It’s arguable that the spare approach makes a deeper impression on people than one where there’s so much busyness that viewers end up remembering very little of what they see and hear. Even so, I’d still recommend people should watch the film for a number of reasons: true, it’s entirely fictional but seeing people cooped up on a raft trying to cope with boredom, hot and sticky weather and getting on each other’s nerves in an unfamiliar and frightening environment may tickle some folks’ fancy (they’re the people fixated on watching “Survivor”); and among other things you become aware there are different approaches to telling a story which need not be all about action and fighting. As arthouse or cult movies go, “Aguirre …” is one of the easier ones to watch as there’s still a definite narrative and just enough loopiness for a mainstream audience to accept as credible.
The real Lope de Aguirre was perhaps very much the man Kinski had in mind: the man was a megalomaniac and paranoid who, as in the film initially, followed Pedro de Ursua with 300 soldiers and several hundred natives on an expedition down the Maranon and Amazon rivers in 1560. In 1561, Aguirre overthrew Ursua and then Fernando de Guzman and took over the expedition, had himself proclaimed prince of Peru, Tierra Firma and the Chilean provinces, and led his men to the Atlantic Ocean via the Orinoco river, destroying native settlements along the way. He reached Barquisimeto in Venezuela where he was attacked by forces loyal to Spain. Realising his situation was hopeless, he killed his teenage daughter Elvira, who had accompanied him, to save her from being raped and mistreated as the child of a traitor. He was captured, shot and beheaded and his body was cut up into pieces and thrown into the streets.