If I, Aguirre, command the birds to drop dead from the trees, then the birds will drop dead from the trees. I am the wrath of God. The earth I pass will see me and tremble.
No retrospective on weird, antisocial cinema would be complete without acknowledging German director, Werner Herzog. Perhaps known better as a documentarian, Herzog’s early work was characterized by adventures into the heart of human darkness. The primary theme can, perhaps, be summarized by the title of his book about the filming of Fitzcaraldo entitled The Conquest of the Useless. Herzog, along with being one of the smartest human beings on the planet, looks at the species for what it is. Early films such as Aguirre were studies in the cruelty and greed that characterizes the human species, especially when it contemplates grand designs. All too often we become thralls to the insanity of others. If you are interested in the ways that individuals will martial resources to create monuments to their own egos, this might be a film you would enjoy.
The history between Klaus Kinski and Herzog is already well-known to most film students. But if you are unfamiliar with them, the two comprised a formidable duo. In this film Kinski plays Don Lope de Aguirre, a Spanish mercenary that committed mutiny by usurping an 16th Century expedition down the Amazon River in search of the lost city of El Dorado. Kinski has been characterized by Herzog as functionally psychotic, often times raging for hours. Given that this film is shot on location under extreme duress from the weather and the environment, Kinski’s rages were highly problematic. I cannot offer an accurate analysis of Herzog’s personality, as his intellectual gifts mask the madness that drove him to these projects. He noted that, on one of these South American shoots, the indigenous people became so alarmed by Kinski’s behavior they offered to kill him. The result of these tense, explosive performances are films like Aguirre.
The narrative of Aguirre is simple. Spanish conquerors, who subjugated the Incan Empire (one of the largest land empires in history) in a matter of a few years, worked to squeeze every drop of gold they could from the new world. From a historical standpoint, many of the Spanish mercenaries who came late to the party felt like they were getting cut out from the big hauls. The real life Aguirre was one of these. He was tough, battle-hardened, and walked with a limp from a prior battle. He was also, quite likely, a sociopath. I will simply say that Kinski nails this part. He steals most of the show. To complicate matters, the historical Aguirre decided to bring along his teenage daughter as part of the expedition, doting on her like a queen. Herzog leaves the suggestion open that it is Aguirre’s intent to breed with his daughter and establish a new empire to challenge the Spanish crown. The film documents the expedition’s depredations and descent into madness.
Those trained by modern blockbusters might find parts of the film slow going. But, taken for what it is, the work is simply mesmerizing. There a few scenes of people signing documents, but this is what the Spanish did. The signing of declarations often took place in public with great pomp. Here the films is very historically accurate. But there is more to it. Herzog is able to catch shots that other directors miss. There is one scene where an iridescent butterfly perches on Aguirre’s shoulder, then moves to his arm—as if following the actor’s gaze. I also want to point out the actor Helena Rojo, who plays the expedition’s original leader’s wife (Aguirre usurps his authority). She is the only one in the film with the courage to stand-up to his paranoia and her character resolution is a rare moment of cinematic beauty.
In short, this is a great film for a meditative mood. It just takes you along with the flow the same way the great river carried its occupants away so many centuries ago, anxious to meet their collective doom.
Rating: 4 Hits