ON THIS RIVER, GOD NEVER FINISHED HIS CREATION.
Sometime between three and four o’clock in the morning, Werner Herzog’s phone rang. He answered but it took him a few minutes to realize who was screaming at the other end. It was Klaus Kinski, an actor Herzog had first met years earlier when he had rented a room in the Herzog family apartment. Kinski had made quite an impression on Herzog, and when the time came to make Aguirre: The Wrath of God, the film that made the director an international household name, he sent the script to Kinski, by then an established actor. He was hoping for Kinski to accept the role of Aguirre and after an hour of screaming on the phone Herzog determined that the actor was indeed interested.
Looking for El Dorado
In 1560, Spanish conquistadors along with indigenous slaves are making their way through the South American jungles, looking for El Dorado, the mythical country of gold. After some time, Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés) decides that the approach of the expedition must change. A smaller team is selected, headed by Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra). Their aim will be to scout ahead by raft, to see if there is any point in continuing.
Along for the journey is the paranoid Don Lope de Aguirre (Kinski), his 15-year-old daughter, a monk (Del Negro) who will become the expedition’s chronicler, and Don Fernando de Gúzman (Peter Berling), a generally useless representative of the Spanish royal family. The scouting party soon turns into a disaster and a mutiny is brewing…
A troubled relationship
This was the film that made Herzog famous, but the many stories surrounding the production are certainly worth a separate documentary, as was the case with Apocalypse Now (1979), a movie that was clearly inspired by Aguirre. The greatest source of those stories was the troubled relationship between the director and Kinski. They disagreed on how Aguirre should be portrayed, with the hot-tempered actor thinking he should be a ”ranting madman” while Herzog wanted a quieter, more nuanced performance. In order to get what he wanted, Herzog would infuriate Kinski and then shoot the scene once the actor’s rage had burned out.
There are stories of how Kinski pulled a gun on the crew and how he and Herzog would threaten each other. Over the years, other facts have emerged, including how Herzog had stolen the camera used for the film and how he paid locals to trap 400 monkeys for the final scenes. It was a crazy shoot in Peru and on the Amazon River where the crew had to get creative due to budget restraints. Obviously, this approach fits perfectly a film about strangers trying to survive in a foreign land, ignorant about the culture they’re encountering. Negro’s monk is our narrator, but as a representative of the religion that’s trying to conquer the world and the natives, he’s a huge part of the problem, hungry for souls to save and gold to grab. The whole expedition is packed with people one would prefer to see drown in the Amazon than succeed with their mission. Kinski is mesmerizing as Aguirre, the mutineer with a wild-eyed stare, and Berling is amusing as the fat, gutless nobleman who is crowned ”emperor”.
The story has some basis in historical facts, but most of it was made up by Herzog who saw in Aguirre a kind of mad adventurer he would frequently return to in his subsequent films.
The soundtrack was created by Popol Vuh, a German progressive band that Herzog would use in several other films. Their music lends a special, haunting quality to the movie, much in the same way that Vangelis’s electronic score would elevate Ridley Scott’s 1492 (1992).
Aguirre: The Wrath of God 1972-West Germany. 94 min. Color. Produced by Werner Herzog, Hans Prescher. Written and directed by Werner Herzog. Cinematography: Thomas Mauch. Music: Popol Vuh. Cast: Klaus Kinski (Don Lope de Aguirre), Ruy Guerra (Don Pedro de Ursúa), Del Negro (Gaspar de Carvajal), Helena Rojo, Cecilia Rivera, Peter Berling.
Trivia: Original title: Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes.
Last word: “When I came out with ‘Aguirre: The Wrath of God’, almost the entire media and all my friends turned away from me and said, ‘Oh, he’s gone commercial now!’ which at the time was the worst thing you could do. But I’ve always said that all my films are commercial and I’ve never felt like a maverick. I’m occupying the center and I’m mainstream, while the others feel bizarre. Although some of them have made hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, so what? I’m still occupying the center.” (Herzog, DGA)