Werner Herzog’s first film with Klaus Kinski, Aguirre, Wrath of God, tells the story of an expedition of conquistadors searching for the fabled Eldorado and coming unstuck in the process. Made in 1972, the film was shot entirely on location in the Amazon rain forest and involved the cast and crew enduring much of the madness and hardship that the film’s characters underwent, in what was to become Herzog’s almost legendary modus operandi. The relationship between the director and lead actor – as documented in Herzog’s brilliant 1999 documentary My Best Fiend – was particularly fraught, with temper tantrums, threats of murder and even gunplay coming into the mix.
Aguirre incorporates this sense of ramshackle chaos and insanity. The first sight of the expedition traversing the mountains inspires anything but confidence. The adventurers and slaves descend precipitous paths awkwardly, encumbered by pieces of cannon, sedan chairs, two gorgeously dressed noble women and livestock. A crate of hens is dropped down the mountainside, clouds and mist obscure the view, and no one looks happy. The adventure – even at the beginning – seems like dangerous drudgery rather than anything glamorous or romantic. This is not the story of Europeans going mad in the jungle, but rather the madness that drives these people into the jungle in the first place. Almost immediately, the group begins to fragment, with a forward expedition being sent on, and this continual unravelling will be the main dynamic of the narrative as we follow them on their hopeful (but to us obviously hopeless) quest. Official proclamations are read to the indifferent jungle, the Holy Brother charts the unfolding of disaster despairingly in his diary, and things begin to fall apart. The most literal and dangerous example of this are the rafts that they use to transport themselves down the river and – in the earliest part of the journey – through the furious churning rapids. The camera itself is almost always in the way, splashed with water, and occasionally glanced at.
Aguirre’s transformation from muttering discontent to utterly insane and self-deluded tyrant is inversely proportionate to the amount of power he actually has. As his men succumb to disease and Indian attacks and the ranks are thinned, he lurches around and postures (so much of his performance is in his strange, lopsided stance), attempting to somehow realise his own vision through the power of his glare and his overblown and self-deluded rhetoric. The hypnotic music by Popol Vuh lulls us into a fever dream, and Herzog never allows Aguirre a moment of triumph, or a glorious death. He is left to exacting executions, via his humming henchman, and even there the main voice of opposition, the noblewoman Inez, played by Helena Rojo, defeats him by bravely walking off into the jungle.
There is a dark comedy to all this, and Aguirre is not the only lunatic in the asylum. When two friendly Indians turn up, seemingly prepared to worship the Spaniards as gods, the person who we’ve previously trusted as the narrative voice of reason, Brother Gaspar De Carvajal (Del Negro), has them executed for blasphemy. The cruelty of the expedition is shown in their treatment of the animals (horses, hens and monkeys) as well as of each other, an unpleasant aspect which the film shares with that other film of jungle madness, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980). Ultimately, the fury of the title is self-inflicted and preposterous. The omnipresent river that carries them along at its own pace – and it’s slowness can prove as deadly as its rapids – will take Aguirre and his raft of monkeys into oblivion.
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