It is Spanish medieval history meets German 20th century history. It is Heart of Darkness meets Mein Kampf. It is glory meets madness. It is conquest meets greed. It is Herzog meets Kinski. It is abjection meets addiction. This is Werner Herzog’s 1972 Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, The Wrath of God) starring Klaus Kinski, German acting idol, which was re-shown this past week in New York.
The film opens with Don Pizarro’s (Alejandro Repulles) expedition descending the Andes. A small army zig-zags down the side of a mountain in single file while the voice of Brother Carvajal (Del Negro) reads from his diary of the voyage. And then appears Don Lope de Aguirre, played by the enigmatic Klaus Kinski, the Wrath of God himself. He saunters past the soldiers and slaves, whipping them indiscriminately in passing, like it “ain’t no thing.”
History presages that Pizarro’s expedition takes a turn for a worse. Supplies being short, the Spanish explorer decides to set up camp and send a smaller mission to scout ahead in search of the El Dorado, the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. His speech explaining these decisions is extremely awkward, as it seems to address soldiers and slaves alike. Or could it just be an amateur delivery? Who knows?
“Who cares?” is more accurate. It is Aguirre/Kinski who steals the show. The second in command is assigned to a side mission but strikes fear into the hearts of all – including his superiors – with his crushing stare. “Aguirre” they whisper, “he will ruin us all.”
And he does. As the small band of men rafts through the jungle they are assailed by natives, starvation, and the sheer power of the jungle. The commander, Don Ursua (Ruy Guerra), decides to turn back once the rafts are swept away in the night (was it really the river?), but Aguirre will have none of it. He was never having any of it. He leads a mutiny against the appointed commander, only to appoint the fat nobleman Guzman (Peter Berling) as the new figurehead commander.
Finally. Finally Aguirre is in control. And finally Kinski is the absolute center of attraction in this film, so that I can tell the reader all about this fascinating and addictive man. Klaus Kinski was insane. He said so himself. You think I am using the word lightly? During the filming of this movie, some of his colleagues were playing cards in a hut on the set. The noise from the hut irritated Kinski so much that he fired three shots at it and blew the top joint of the finger of one of the extras. Trust me, the man was loco.
But I can say without a doubt that he was also the greatest German actor that ever lived. His blond hair, grooved face – which seems chiseled from rock – and bulging, steel-blue eyes make him the uncontested poster child of Teutonic ferocity.
The director is almost as iconic and brilliant as the actor. And Herzog was no less insane than his favorite actor (he merely kept it implicit). When Kinski wanted Herzog to fire a sound technician with whom he couldn’t work (how closely do actors and sound technicians have to work together?), Herzog refused. When Kinski decided to leave the set and the jungle, Herzog threatened to kill first the actor and then himself. Some might believe he was bluffing. That this threat had the strength to make Kinski stay and finish the film makes me think the director was for real.
Maybe the above description of Aguirre/Kinski strikes readers as a little too… uh, Arian for comfort? Well it should. Herzog may be retelling a historical tale about Spanish conquest and greed, but he is intentionally infusing it with deeper Germanic references. The minute Kinski shows himself on screen in all his bottled rage and fury, the German in me was waiting for him to break the lingual mold of translated medieval Spanish and give us a real tour de force of 20th century German swearing. “Scheisse!” he yells when the cannon gets stuck in the mud. “Arschloch!” he insults some poor idiot, in addition to whipping him. It would not be the same in any other language, or spoken by any other character. German curse words uttered by the blond and blue-eyed Wrath of God himself.
As the mini-expedition travels further down the river, “The horror! The horror!” becomes more and more apparent, and Herzog’s reference to the Third Reich increasingly obvious. When the Spaniards storm an abandoned village, Aguirre decides to drive his black slave naked before him, thinking it will scare the natives. When his men, crazed with hunger, feast themselves on a bunch of bananas he hacks away at them (the men, not the bananas) with his sword. One of them plans to desert the lunatic; Aguirre has his henchman behead the poor SOB. A less diplomatic man could never be found.
In and of itself, Aguirre’s behavior is not what is horrifying. There are plenty of films that tell stories of ruthless and crazy men. What is truly frightening is that this isn’t Aguirre we are seeing, it’s Kinski and he exists beyond the silver-screen. (Well, actually, Kinski died in 1991 so I guess everyone can rest easy.) A thought made all the more discomforting by the final scene.
After South American natives kill everyone on the raft, including Aguirre’s daughter (equally blond and equally blue-eyed as her father), only the crazed nobleman remains. It all comes together in this last scene. Out of nowhere, hundreds of squirrel monkeys appear on the raft, gathering in various spaces. Kinski ambles after them, catching one, lifting it, dropping it back on the deck.
All the while he speaks to the monkeys. He tells them of the conquest they will make together as they press on. He explains his companions’ disdainful desire for gold and how he instead wishes for something grander and more majestic. He claims he will marry his daughter, establishing a dynasty pure and eternal, the likes of which the world has never seen.
I’m pretty sure Adolf Hitler had similar ideas and dreams. Despite the fact that Aguirre: The Wrath of God is set in 16th century South America, the story of human greed and megalomania it tells is not universal. The Arian Klaus Kinski brings the message home to the fatherland in the most discomposing way. He stares directly at the camera in the appalling final scene, confronting me with his madness. I can’t wait to get away from his overwhelming gaze. At the same time, I know I am going to go out and buy every single Kinski film the next chance I get.