Courtesy Film Forum/Photofest
The late Klaus Kinski is in full evil flower in the new 35mm print of Werner Herzog’s great “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.”
Aguirre’ is back, with a vengeance
By JERRY TALLMER
Clouds so low that they mask the mountains. Mountains so high that they melt, hauntingly, into the clouds. And now, bit by bit, we perceive a line of ants working their slow, painful way down the very edge of a 600-meter vertical drop. But as our eye the camera’s eye moves in, we see these are not ants but men, human beings, many of them in helmets and breastplates, with either a crossbow or a harquebus (an ancient long rifle) bouncing against a shoulder; others, the slaves, the bearers, the Incas, all but naked, loaded down with baggage, crates, a huge wheel, a chicken coop, even a top-heavy sedan chair with one lone occupant, a dark-haired young woman. There is a cannon. There is a horse or two. There is a llama. There are snorting black pigs. One of the crates suddenly tumbles toward the furious river far below and explodes on impact like a fireball.
Thus opens a movie an idiosyncratic masterpiece which cut so deep when it first played here in the early1970s that even if you never saw it again you never forgot it. “Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes” (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God”) introduced its then already proficient 29-year-old German writer/director/producer to the rest of the world. His name was, and is, Werner Herzog, and he was and is just as obsessive in his own line of work as Don Lope de Aguirre, the would-be new conquistador of Peru, played with high-octane maniacal hubris by Klaus Kinski, in the new 35mm print of “Aguirre” now at Film Forum.
The year is 1560, 20 years after the death of Francisco Pizzaro, conqueror of Peru. What drives Aguirre to take over, by murder, the leadership of a small force sent to explore the lower Amazon is his hunger for gold and power, lured on by dreams of the Incas’ “golden city” El Dorado. The Spaniards did not know that El Dorado was a fiction, a lie, concocted by the Indians they’d conquered those same Indians who, terrified of horses and Negroes, “are useless as slaves because they die like flies.”
There is, by the way, for English-language moviegoers (i.e., us), a double-barreled surreal overlay to Herzog’s quite sufficiently surreal film. The characters are 16th-century Spaniards or Indians, the translations of what they’re saying are in English subtitles, but what they, the actors, are actually speaking is, of course, German, and good solid German at that.
“When I, Aquirre, want little birds to drop dead from the trees, then the little birds will drop from the trees!” Aguirre icily proclaims at the height of his madness. Reviewers in past years have not infrequently made the power connection from there to Adolf Hitler. Here is what Herzog himself has to say on that matter (in an interview in “Herzog on Herzog,” edited by Paul Cronin, Faber & Faber, 2002):
Of course I, like most Germans, am very conscious of my country’s history. I am even apprehensive about insecticide commercials, and know there is only one step from insecticide to genocide. Hitler’s heritage to the German people has made many of us hypersensitive, even today. But with “Aguirre” there was never any intention to create a metaphor of Hitler.
Well and good, but I, nevertheless, watching the picture this time around, could not keep the name “Hindenburg” from flashing through my mind the old war horse who was said to sign any paper Hitler put in front of his nose during the sequence on a raft when a fat old party named Don Fernando de Guzman (actor Peter Berling), appointed by Aquirre as “emperor of a land six times the size of Spain,” is guzzling away on a banquet of lobster and fruit while all around him are starving to death.
Rafts are very important in this movie altogether. They are especially important when, bearing horse, cannon, ammunition, armor, overloaded men, and a woman or two, they have to shoot some horrendous rapids. One such craft gets trapped against a canyon wall and can’t pull away. Comes the dawn, it is littered with dead bodies. The silent Indians of the jungle have done a night’s work with poisoned arrows.
Silence in fact is everywhere along that river, sort of a new twist well, an old twist on the SILENCE = DEATH of the AIDS era. Silence and silent arrows. When at last some shouting and drumming is heard as the rafts float down past a rudimentary village, one conquistador murmurs to another that the shout is a frustrated: “Fresh meat is floating by!”
The doom that is written in every frame here is not unlike the death that is waiting in every frame of another notable motion picture of transportation and obsession trucks instead of rafts Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 “Wages of Fear.” But instead of tough-guy stoical Yves Montand, we here have the late Klaus Kinski in full evil flower. You cannot take your eyes off his square jaw, rectangular skull, cheekbones to die for, herky-jerk Richard III posture and walk. When not screaming, not snarling, he spends much of his time brooding, brooding, and the camera broods, and keeps on brooding, right along with him. (One camera only, often operated by Herzog himself, for this entire “child of poverty” project that was brought in for 370,000 1972 dollars.)
The real Kinski was evidently not far off the mark of the semi-real Don Lope de Aguirre. “Working with Marlon Brando,” Herzog told Paul Cronin, “must have been like kindergarten compared to Kinski” who on the set would scream if he saw a mosquito, and on stage had once “hit someone so hard with a sword that the actor was in hospital for three months.”
That does not change the fact of his magnetism. Only adds to it.
Magnetism is a good word for “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” It is in the name of God the Christian God that the conquistadors slaughtered their way to acquisition (seizure, theft) of countries like Peru. It is in the name of God that Aguirre would seize El Dorado the El Dorado that exists only in his head. “This is the Bible, the word of God,” says the expedition’s monk to an Indian who has been eying the book. The Indian picks the book up, puts it to his ear and is immediately killed for blasphemy.
But the same rough justice is applied Spaniard to Spaniard. When a dissident among the troops dares to voice a warning, Aguirre’s disposition of the matter Alice in Wonderland in the Andes is a terse “Try him and then kill him.” The commander Aguirre has deposed (Ruy Guerra) is finally taken out and hanged lynched on Aguirre’s order. The commander’s young wife, that cool cookie in the sedan chair in the opening passage on the mountainside (Helena Tojo), simply walks off into the jungle in her best gown and is never heard from again.
Not long later, after Aguirre’s blonde babyfaced daughter (Cecilia Rivera) has died in his arms from the poison of an unseen arrow, he will rave about starting a new dynasty by marrying that dead daughter. His madness in one of the most vivid closing, rotating, moments of any movie anywhere, alone on a raft with a horde of tiny monkeys is our madness. Hitler may not have been in this picture, or in the back of the back of Herzog’s mind, but Vietnam and Joseph Conrad certainly were. If I had to choose between Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” I know which one I’d have to choose.
AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD. Written, directed, produced (1972) by Werner Herzog. 93 minutes. In German, with English subtitles. A New Yorker Films release. On a varied schedule through October 31 at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, (212) 727-8110.