Aguirre: The Wrath of God is one of those films where the production story seems to overshadow that of the film itself. Werner Herzog’s third film, and the one that marks his international breakthrough, is remembered as one of the most tumultuous film shoots in cinema history. Thankfully, the film is every bit as fascinating and mysterious as the nature of its production.
The inimitable Herzog, then aged 30, shepherded a cast and crew of 450 off to Machu Picchu, largely without a plan or prayer. Herzog knew he wanted to track the fateful course of historic adventurer Lope de Aguirre, a man whose conquests he had read about in a children’s book and felt ripe for dramatic reinvention, but its turnout, he left largely to the gods to decide. Herzog threw together a largely wordless script in a few days, and set course for lands unknown. The rest is (film) history.
Amongst the four hundred was the now notoriously volatile Klaus Klinski, whom Herzog, always enjoying a challenge, would employ as leading man four more times after this. The combination of the inhospitality of the land and of the personalities involved would make for a remarkable production. Over a rushed, trying five week shoot, Herzog and his crew of countrymen and natives reportedly faced danger at every corner, living in as much in fear of Klinski’s rage as the torrential weather conditions. Starved, soaked and exhausted, the crew battled on, with Aguirre, in all its atmospheric, enigmatic glory emerging as the fruit of their labour.
An epic of doomed persistence, Aguirre’s _narrative perhaps gains significance from the story of it’s making. The struggles of the cast and crew cloaking the film in a damp and dour atmosphere of despair that only serves to heighten the on-screen debilitation. _Aguirre tracks the titular explorer as he rises from amongst a band of explorers to become leader of their party, an accomplishment that proves to be less successful than it sounds. Charting the increasingly disastrous mission of an ever diminishing band of explorers, Aguirre is definitive in its portrayal of an insane commitment to absolute futility. If the increasing barriers put up by both man and nature didn’t make success seem a bright prospect for Herzog’s explorers there is the underlying knowledge for the audience that the place they seek, El Dorado, doesn’t even exist.
In its vision of a band of raft-riding, defeated men descending into the heart of darkness, Aguirre draws obvious parallels with another ‘70s classic, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Indeed, Coppola sighted Herzog’s film as an inspiration, and the debt is obvious even without Coppola’s humble recognition. As Aguirre, his men, and one horse, slip deeper and deeper into the heart of the jungle, it is apparent that the atmosphere of Coppola’s Vietnam was informed by Herzog’s film. Utilising the hostility of the landscape and its natural sounds as backdrop, Herzog creates as astounding a portrait of the oppressiveness of nature as any he would follow with.
Klinski plays Lope de Aguirre with a quiet and building intensity through to the explosive speech near the end to which the title refers. He may be the earthly wrath of god, but he is still minuscule presence amongst the vastness of the natural world. In the most remarkable scene of the film, Klinski stumbles around the raft, attempting to scare away a horde of monkeys who have overtaken the vessel, whilst the camera loops around him, emphasising the overwhelming futility of it all. Only Herzog could come up with such a fantastically bizarre way of showing the utter hopelessness of attempting to defy nature as staging a monkey invasion sequence.
Aguirre is not perfect, working with a single camera setup against a tide of difficulties does pay a toll on the technical side of things, and the fact that the story was more or less ad-libbed does come through, but these quibbles are side-lined by the remarkable aura of the film. The setting, the troubled production, as well as Herzog’s skill with the camera and Florian Fricke’s fantastic score, give the whole thing a tinge of oppressiveness and mystery that remains timeless.
Herzog’s behind-the-camera escapades have become as well-known as his cinematic contributions. Aguirre marks the start of the BFI’s Herzog retrospective, and whilst not his debut, it is his first real touchstone, a film that is entirely impossible to emulate. Aguirre marks the first time where everything came together against all odds, as it would many times for one of the world’s most enduring “soldiers of cinema,” to use the director’s own term.
Viewed as part of the BFI’s Herzog Retrospective in June & July 2013.
A new restoration of Aguirre plays as part of the BFI’s Herzog retrospective, and will have an extended run from the 7th of June.