Werner Herzog -- with one of the craziest, most eccentric actors of the last 50 years -- Klaus Kinski -- and what do you get? A movie that defies description, one that is equally loved and despised depending on who you ask. Critics love it, and it has gained a reputation as one of the 100 best movies ever made, whether toward more of an arthouse crowd or movie fans in general. The movie is 1972's Aguirre: The Wrath of God.
It is a movie that might as well come with a warning for anyone willing to sit down and actually watch it. It is an art-house movie, one that movie aficionados can talk about in that snooty, I'm better than you tone because they "get" a movie. It is a movie that is respected in part because of its badness, its small budget limiting the overall production but adding to a sense of realism, of verisimilitude (yeah, that's right. I can use a thesaurus too). I don't know where to begin with a movie like this, one I've long been aware of but never watched before now. Did I like it? Did I hate it? Honestly, Hell if I know.
Following the destruction of the Incan empire in the mid 16th Century, explorer Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles) leads an expedition into the Amazon jungle in search of the famed golden city of El Dorado. When his column meets obstacle after obstacle, he sends ahead a smaller group of 40 men headed by one of his officers, Ursua (Ruy Guerra), with Don Aguirre (Kinski) as his second in command. Heading downriver, this second column quickly faces the same problems; horrific conditions, dwindling supplies, treachery in the ranks, and an unseen hostile Indian enemy hiding in the jungle. As the days pass and they trek further into the unknown, Aguirre's true nature comes out, a man obsessed with the glory and riches that await them in El Dorado, consequences and sacrifices be damned.
This movie doesn't have a plot so much as portraying a descent into madness. Herzog apparently wrote the screenplay in two or three days, but even that sounds off. There is little in the way of dialogue other than narration provided by Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro), and the story doesn't develop much other than seeing this group of men slowly lose their minds as disease and fatigue take over. I was frustrated beyond all belief watching this movie. Random things happen that seem to have nothing to do with, well, anything, and then are thrown aside liked yesterday's trash.
One of the selling points of this movie was the incredible camera techniques, the uniqueness of it all. I'll say this, 'Aguirre' is one of the most real movies I've ever seen. Herzog filmed in the Peruvian rainforests and brought his cast and crew into some horrific places, filming all the time. In scenes of the expedition floating down the Amazon, those frightened to death faces aren't faking it. Those are real looks of terror. Herzog built rafts, put his cameras on them, and shoved off to get his scenes. No CGI or stuntmen here. His camera is the fly on the wall, drifting in and among these men as they venture into madness. We are there with them seeing this all happen. It is a documentary posing as a feature film. We're in the mud and muck with them seeing it all come apart bit by bit and piece by piece.
But for all the reality of the movie, it's incredibly frustrating to watch. Dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum, and before he addresses his men about halfway through the movie I think Kinski spoke about 8 words. Herzog sets up these epic scenes and then just leaves his camera there. The opening scene is Pizarro's expedition making their way down an almost vertical path through the jungle. It's a remarkable scene...for the first minute or so. It goes on and on untouched, unedited. That's the whole movie, static shots that are used repeatedly and feel like Herzog wants to beat you over the head to get his point across. Whole stretches of time go by with absolutely nothing happening. At one point, I looked up and saw there was 15 minutes left. I was conflicted. I was happy it was almost over, but at the same time, where had the last 75 minutes gone?
What does work here (even if it is a case of too little, too late) is the final 20-25 minutes as Aguirre's power-hungry motives come to fruition. He pushes his men beyond all limits, killing anyone who even mentions turning back. The remaining conquistadores float down the Amazon on this immense raft almost waiting to die in this finale that plays like an other-worldly dream, a depiction of the end of the world. German band Popol Vuh supplies the soundtrack (listen HERE), a perfectly chosen piece of music. Watching the finale, you get the distinct feeling of some hallucinatory drug. Is this really happening? Is Herzog insane? The final shot of the movie is an incredible helicopter tracking shot that wraps it all up, one of the greatest final shots I've ever come across just for how well it is crafted.
Herzog and Kinski would go on to work together several more times, and you can see why. They're both bat-shit crazy. No one could play the part of Don Lope de Aguirre like Kinski. This is only the second movie of his I've seen that wasn't a spaghetti western, and it's quite a part. It is all presence and looks with little in the way of speaking. When he does talk, it is these incredible monologues that make the rest of the movie almost worthwhile. This isn't a guy reciting lines. This is an actor who believes what he's saying. He truly is the wrath of God, the best part of a movie that I really didn't enjoy, but will most likely end up watching again at some point. It's weird, unsettling, different, and will probably infuriate some viewers. Give it a go though.
Aguirre: The Wrath of God <---trailer (1972): **/****