Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes (AKA: Aguirre, The Wrath of God) – 1972
Director – Werner Herzog
Starring – Klaus Kinski, Del Negro, and Peter Berling
So the story goes, that when actor Klaus Kinski announced that he was going to quit and leave this film, director Werner Herzog threatened to shoot him dead and then turn the gun on himself. This desperate, at-any-cost sentiment is mirrored in the story and it perfectly outlines the over-all tone of this film.
The story, set in the 16th century, follows an army of conquistador’s as they search for El Dorado, the lost city of gold. The excursion is made up of hundreds of people, spaniards, courtly ladies, indians slaves, and a monk from whom we are getting the narration of the story. As the party goes further and further into the jungle, they are whittled down by disease, attack from the native peoples, and greed.
The story itself isn’t very developed, only the destination, and their utter disregard for the people and culture that they need to step on to get to it. What we get instead is a slow burn of a character study. It is through observation that we learn about the mindset and goals of our main characters, and truthfully this tells us more than narration or exposition ever could. Klaus Kinski as the titular character Don Lope de Aguirre, very much manages to embody this sort of force of nature rather than a realistic human being. More interested in notoriety than in riches, or land, his desire seems to be the spreading of his name and reputation. Despite this desire for this kind of attention he seems to have no interest in being a leader of men. After engineering the downfall of their leader, he nominates a new man to be their “emperor”, and uses intimidation to get the remainder of his group to go along.
Nature plays a large part in this story, so much so that it becomes a character in and of itself. It always surrounds the hapless men during their quest, and when they make a mis-step, nature is there to punish them for their folly. From a raging river, to oppressive sunshine, from overgrown jungles, to the native peoples living in the shadows of the jungle, Aguirre, The Wrath of God cronicles the dismantling of “civilization”.
This characters in this film are very much on a singular path to ruination, and death, and the structure and pacing are geared to allow the audience a chance to see it first hand. The slow decent into madness is carried in the over all atmosphere of this film. Nothing is positive, and there is no mistake what will happen by the end. Herzog and Kinski, together, present a feeling of un-ease, and despair that lasts for an hour and a half. In case I haven’t outlined it enough so far, this might not be the best movie for a first date. Maybe wait for the third date.