director Werner Herzog
After watching Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), I bethought myself that I would do well to see, or in this case, re-see, his early feature films. I had seen Aguirre, the Wrath of God when I was a teenager, oddly enough, experimenting with foreign films from the video store (and I think probably recommended by Siskel and Ebert). I probably didn’t have the knowledge and perspective to fully appreciate the film at the time, though the images stayed with me in large part.
It’s an amazing, crazy film. Fictionalizing an account of some real conquistadors, the film follows a large army as it gets lost in the Peruvian wilderness. A group, including Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) gets sent off to try and meet up with another party. They’ve been on the hunt for the famed city of gold, El Dorado, and they live out the metaphor that such a quest has evolved into, a quest to the death, searching for an illusion. Aguirre quickly turns on his captain, mutinying the crew and electing the one noble among them a new king, really machinating his way to leadership. Aguirre is mad as a hatter, tromping around like a paranoid Richard III, bug-eyed and dangerous.
The crew lived out a version of this metaphor, right along with the characters. They dragged their crew and equipment up into the mountains, rode rafts made by the indigenous people who worked on and appeared in the film, suffered starvation and hardships and they had a super-crazy megalomaniac on the set too in Kinski. Herzog reflected on the production of Aguirre in his documentary My Best Fiend (1999), how the local Indians offered to kill Kinski for him at one point, as a way of being helpful. The film, as naturalistic as the cinematography is, deep in the muck and the mud, carrying a massively heavy canon through the jungle, it’s a quest of its own kind on a shoestring budget.
The film’s best moment comes toward the end, when Aguirre sees a ship hanging from some trees, with its rowboat dangling below. It’s a harbinger of doom. Was it the other lost Spanish ship? Is it a hallucination? As delirium takes over and Aguirre is left aboard the raft, the only living thing surrounded by a teeming swarm of monkeys, delusion or reality, it doesn’t matter anymore.
It’s quite brilliant, quite simple, beautiful as well. It raises more questions for me about Herzog as a filmmaker. He was clearly quite the wunderkind at one point. His modern self seems like a fascinating, kind, interesting soul, still cranking out films at a great rate, both documentary and fictional, still delving into areas of madness, inspiration, individuality, the extremes of life. His modern fiction films have felt much more hackneyed, so it’s interesting to see his work when it had its full verve.