Aguirre: “Have you seen any solid ground that would support your weight?”
I know I have recommended a lot of films to you in the past months, but if you have never seen “Aguirre, The Wrath of God” (1972) I encourage you to rectify this immediately. It’s one of a handful of films that any cinema lover must see at least once. The opening shot alone is one that will inspire great awe. You hear ecclesiastical otherworldly music. Clouds part and you see the Huayna Picchu mountain in close-up, and you begin to distinguish Conquistadores and Indians descending its precipitous stone steps in a serpentine fashion. The constricted ratio of the screen will emphasize the verticality. It’s a visual that lingers long enough for you to process how grand it is, what you’re witnessing – as well as to understand that the capturing and achievement of that shot is part of the monumentality. This is a transcendent beginning to an unforgettable cinematic journey.
It’s explained that near the end of 1560, Gonzalo Pizarro and a large expedition set off from the Peruvian sierras deep into the Amazon looking for the golden kingdom of El Dorado. After the Spaniards had dominated and pillaged the Inca realm, the subjugated Indians had invented the legend as a diversion or perhaps as a form of revenge. We’re also informed that the only document to survive the lost expedition was the diary of the priest Gaspar de Carvajal who will narrate the proceedings. This is influential, epic, historic, Conradian, pre-found-footage, genre-defying stuff!
The Spaniards are dressed in armor and the Indians are carrying supplies, canons and sedans transporting the women – macheteing their way through the mud and the bogs. On New Year’s eve, Pizarro starts to understand the futility of the expedition and sends forty men to on a raft down the river for scouting. The arrangement is that if they don’t send news within a week it will be understood that they’ve failed. In charge is Don Pedro de Ursua, with treacherous Aguirre as his second in command. Representing the House of Spain will be Don Fernando. Against Pizarro’s better judgement, two women will accompany them – Ursua’s mistress Ines and Aguirre’s teenage daughter, Flores.
Conceptualized and helmed by genius Werner Herzog, this Icarus-like tale of human folly and hubris has become mythical as well for the way it was filmed. The crew and volatile star Klaus Kinki – who is ferocious as Aguirre – floated down Huallaga and Nanay rivers shooting in chronological order without stunt people – riding dangerous Amazonian river rapids. The reactions you see on the film are people naturally responding to the wonder around them – to the speed of the water – to the treachery of the movement. One scene in the film that shows the destruction and flooding of the rafts is something that had actually happened to the film set and was incorporated into the script. There are moments that you see smudges and moisture on the camera lens. Like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” – which was heavily influenced by this film – the perils behind the shooting of “Aguirre” are part of a documentary (“Heart of Darkness” in the case of Coppola and “My Best Fiend” in the case of Herzog.) Star and director battled over the way that the stubborn role of Aguirre should be portrayed. Kinski’s portrayal is Shakespearean.
There are some unforgettable images in this film full of poetry, beauty and madness. The priest handing the bible to a native and telling him this is the word of God – and the Indian holding the book to his ear, hearing nothing. Aguirre standing against the green dense foliage of the jungle in stark contrast to an indigenous man in red costume playing a pipe. Spaniards in a tableau formation watching the power of the river and speaking of their fate. A raft full of men impotently fighting against the entrapment of an eddy. The final scene is the stuff that dreams are made of: Aguirre planning his conquest of El Dorado – his kingdom overtaken by wild monkeys. We never see the enemy. El Dorado is an illusion.
Aguirre: “When we reach the sea, we will build a bigger ship, and sail north to take Trinidad from the Spanish crown. From there we’ll sail on and take Mexico from Cortes. What great treachery that will be! Then all of New Spain will be ours, and we’ll produce history as others produce plays. I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. Together, we shall rule this entire continent. We shall endure. I am the Wrath of God! Who else is with me?”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime, Tubi, Fandor, Kanopy, Shout! Factory TV, Popcornflix and Sling TV. Available to rent on iTunes, Apple TV Amazon Prime and Google Play.
Written by Werner Herzog
Directed by Werner Herzog
Starring Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo, Ruy Guerra, Del Negro and Peter Berling
Writer and Director Werner Herzog on Filming “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”
“…Nothing scares me any more—neither a jungle, nor [actor] Klaus Kinski…”…Elaborating on his infamous relationship with Kinski, Herzog maintains, “The man is actually crazy. [During production on Aguirre] his behavior was impossible; he raved like a lunatic at least once a day. To his credit, I also have to say that he worked for a much lower fee than usual, out of pure fascination for the role and for the script.” (documentary.org)
Herzog made five films with Klaus Kinski, a feat nothing short of miraculous. Kinski is one of the most notorious actors of all time, and he was arguably more difficult to work with than all of the jungles Herzog trekked through, combined. On set, Kinski never wanted to acquiesce to a director’s instructions, threatening to quit the production or hurt all those who defied him. Strangely, Herzog was able to tame this beast, at least for long enough to get a tremendous performance out of him. Kinski was more like a force of nature than a person, similar to an avalanche or a tornado. He did not possess many civilized restraints. Herzog has stated that at disparate times, Kinski showed startling bravery, allowing himself to be filmed on a precarious raft amidst fast-moving rapids for the sake of a great shot. In this sense, Kinski was a figure as variable as the landscape itself, sometimes willing to cooperate, and sometimes not.
At one point on the set of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” the Indians living in the Peruvian area where they were filming approached Herzog and offered to murder Kinski for him. Herzog claims he definitely considered the offer, but ultimately decided against it. The director did, however, pull a gun on the actor during this shoot, threatening to shoot him and then kill himself after Kinski tried to walk away from the project. This kind of ultimatum seems to have worked well for Kinski. (www.indiewire.com)
About Cinematographer Thomas Mauch
Thomas Mauch is a German cinematographer and film producer. With a career that spans over fifty years in both film and television, Mauch is well known for his numerous collaborations with Edgar Reitz, Alexander Kluge, Werner Schroeter, and Werner Herzog. Thomas Mauch’s camera work was significant in shaping the aesthetic appeal and success of New German Film. In the past 50 years, Mauch has worked with directors as varied and unusual. He was also the cameraman for a generation of female filmmakers, such as Helma Sanders-Brahms and Ula Stockl, who translated their novel and very singular perspective to film in the 1970s and 80s. Many of the films for which Thomas Mauch was the cameraman won prestigious international prizes. His camera work also won him many German film awards in gold. Some of his well-known films include “Aguirre, The Wrath of God” (Werner Herzog, 1972), “Fitzcarraldo” (Werner Herzog, 1982), “Palermo Oder Wolfsburg” (Werner Schroeter 1980), “Heimat” (Edgar Reitz 2002 – 2004), “Die Macht Der Gefuhle” (Alexander Kluge 1983), and “Heinrich” (Helma Sanders-Brahms 19777). If Raoul Coutard can now be seen as the godfather of the early French New Wave directors, the German cameraman Thomas Mauch might well hold a similar position in respect of the New German Cinema. He was the main camera collaborator on virtually all the early and later shorts and features by Edgar Reitz and Alexander Kluge [both seminal influences on German cinema from the 1960s onwards]. (honaronline.ir)
About Writer and Director Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog was born September 5, 1942, in Munich, Germany. With Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff, Herzog led the influential postwar West German cinema movement. During his youth, Herzog studied history, literature, and music in Munich and at the University of Pittsburgh and traveled extensively in Mexico, Great Britain, Greece, and Sudan. Herakles (1962) was an early short, and Lebenszeichen (1967; Signs of Life) was his first feature film. He became known for working with small budgets and for writing and producing his own motion pictures. Herzog’s films, usually set in distinct and unfamiliar landscapes, are imbued with mysticism. In “Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen” (1970; “Even Dwarfs Started Small”), the microcosm of a barren island inhabited by dwarfs stands for a larger reality, and in “Fata Morgana” (1971), a documentary on the Sahara, the desert acquires an eerie life of its own. One of Herzog’s best-known films, “Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes” (1972; “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”), follows a band of Spanish explorers into unmapped territory, recording their gradual mental and physical self-destruction. “Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle” (1975; “Every Man for Himself” and “God Against All or The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser”) is a retelling of the Kaspar Hauser legend. Herzog’s most realistic film, “Stroszek” (1977), is a bittersweet tale of isolation concerning a German immigrant who, with his two misfit companions, finds the dairy lands of Wisconsin to be lonelier and bleaker than the slums of Berlin. Herzog’s other films include “Herz aus Glas” (1977; “Heart of Glass”), “Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht” (1979; “Nosferatu the Vampyre,” a version of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” that is an homage to F.W. Murnau’s film of the same name), “Woyzeck” (1979), “Fitzcarraldo” (1982), and “Schrei aus Stein” (1991; “Scream of Stone”).
Later in his career Herzog focused primarily on documentaries, including “Glocken aus der Tiefe” (1995; “Bells from the Deep”), which examines religious beliefs among Russians, and “Grizzly Man” (2005), an account of Timothy Treadwell, an American who studied and lived among grizzly bears in Alaska but was mauled to death along with his girlfriend. “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” (1997) centres on a German American pilot shot down in the jungle during the Vietnam War; the story inspired Herzog’s narrative film “Rescue Dawn” (2007). Among his later documentaries are “Encounters at the End of the World” (2007), which highlights the beauty of Antarctica; “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010), which explores in 3-D the prehistoric paintings at the Chauvet cave in France; and “Into the Abyss” (2011), a sombre examination of a Texas murder case. Herzog’s other narrative films include “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” (2009), a drama about a police officer (played by Nicolas Cage) struggling with drug and gambling addictions, “My Son, My Son, what Have Ye Done” (2009) and “Queen of the Desert” (2014) with Nicole Kidman, James Franco and Damian Lewis. Herzog’s films are characterized by a surreal and subtly exotic quality, and he is hailed as one of the most innovative contemporary directors. He often employs controversial techniques to elicit the desired performances from his actors: he ordered that the entire cast be hypnotized for “Heart of Glass,” forced the cast of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” to endure the arduous environment of South American rainforests, and required his actors to haul a 300-ton ship over a mountain for Fitzcarraldo…His volatile love-hate relationship with the brilliant but emotionally unstable actor Klaus Kinski resulted in some of the best work from both men, and both are best known for the films on which they collaborated. Herzog celebrated their partnership with the well-received documentary film “Mein liebster Feind” (1999; “My Best Fiend”). In addition, Herzog occasionally took acting jobs himself, with notable roles including a stern father in the experimental drama “Julien Donkey-Boy” (1999) and a criminal mastermind in the big-budget action movie “Jack Reacher” (2012). (wernerherzog.com)