I would argue that no director in film history has moved so successfully back and forth between actuality and narrative as Werner Herzog, and Herzog’s skill in ether genre is nowhere better displayed than in Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God). Although Aguirre is ostensibly a work of fiction, it presents itself as a document if not a documentary, and it has enough elements of historical reality to place it somewhere in between. The historical Lope de Aguirre (affectionately nicknamed El Loco) actually did command a Peruvian expedition into the Amazon in 1561, in search of El Dorado. He declared himself prince, but rebellious followers wound up killing him, cutting him up, and sending his various parts to different locations. These latter events, while not depicted in the movie, sort of set the tone for the film.
Aguirre has an otherworldly and outright weird quality. IMDB (the International Movie Database), for example, informs us that the flute-player in the film was “a beggar with mental retardation.” How many other films might have an actor whose voice is used to portray a “conqueror being beheaded?” How many directors would “steal” several hundred monkeys for his film’s finale? Just a bit earlier, Herzog had made Even Dwarfs Started Small, and physical eccentricity was a regular part of his repertoire. As one critic put it, “Herzog’s vision renders the ugly and horrible sublime.” This strangeness and grandiosity is, in part, attributable to his devotion to opera. He has directed more than 20 works, ranging from Wagner in Bayreuth to Mozart in Baltimore. His lead actor, Klaus Kinski, is a throwback to some of the performing monsters of Weimar Germany’s great cinema, like Conrad Veidt and Max Schreck. In fact, Herzog would later cast Kinski in Schreck’s original title role for Herzog’s remake of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.
There is a thin line between cinematic illusion and the kind of delusion at the heart of Aguirre, and the first facilitates the plausibility of the second. Herzog belatedly confessed to embellishing El Loco’s myth for his film, sometimes at the price of subjecting himself to the wrath of Kinski. (This was the first of 10 collaborations between the two, so their eccentricities must have been sometimes congruent and almost always constructive.) Kinski in Aguirre reminds me of Laurence Olivier’s off-balance (physically and mentally) hunchback in Richard III (which was originally written by Shakespeare about 30 years after Aguirre’s venture). I think there is a comparable medievalism captured by Herzog’s film and Shakespeare’s portrayal of his own antihero of a century earlier. It has also been acknowledged by Francis Ford Coppola that Herzog’s film exerted considerable influence on his own film about a river journey into a contemporary heart of darkness, replete with savages and an unknown other: Apocalypse Now (which we will show in its “director’s cut” in August).
Herzog has subsequently roamed the natural world in search of what is probably best described as the unnatural. One might wish that technology had reached a level where he might have been able to take his camera to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, for he has so thoroughly mined what’s available to him on Earth. In the early days of cinema, before airplanes and the spread of what John Wayne calls “the blessings of civilization” in John Ford’s Stagecoach, filmmakers like the Lumière brothers recorded and brought back largely unadulterated sights of immense wonder and mystery. Later, directors like D. W. Griffith and Martin and Osa Johnson explored and exploited “primitive” lands in the American West and Africa, respectively. In a sense, Werner Herzog is a throwback to the primal (and primate) instinct of curiosity, an artist able and unafraid to take us deeply into the depths.
A word about this print: there are some signs that the color is beginning to fade, but I think it can be argued that the overall effect is one of enhancement, adding a kind of golden-brown tinge to the images, like old engravings, appropriate to the 16th century.