Werner Herzog is well in the running for the most bullheaded director I have ever encountered. He doesn’t run away from a challenge; he meets it head on, even if he has to force everyone and everything else that’s with him most of the way, even when they’re too exhausted to move. Such is the case with Aguirre: The Wrath of God, which can be argued is his breakthrough film. There are so many stories and legends behind the making of this picture that I couldn’t possibly include them all in the limited space of my review; Wikipedia has an extensive description of much of what went on before and during the production, so you’d do best to go there and read up on it. It’s as entertaining to read about as it is to watch the film itself, which is something since the film is pretty darn entertaining, even more so when you know what went into making it.
Klaus Kinski is the titular Aguirre, a member of an expedition through Peru in the 1500s by a bunch of Inca-conquering Spaniards in search of the fabled city of El Dorado. Strapped for supplies and food, their leader elects to send a small contingent further down the river, to report back on what they find and to bring back as many supplies as they can. Aguirre is made second-in-command of the scouting group, but pretty much as soon as they start off, he begins to take charge of many of the decisions needing to be made, overruling Ursua, the elected leader of the scouting group. Soon enough, Aguirre deposes Ursua, and begins leading the expedition himself, which due to the authoritarian dictatorship Aguirre naturally imposes, begins to spell doom for the travelers that are with him. Aguirre would seem to be the warmup for the herculean task that would be Fitzcarraldo a decade later; the two films share much in common. For one, they both were entirely shot on location, and everything done in the film was real, so much so that natural events and weather phenomena were incorporated into the film as they happened, such as the river rising and destroying the group’s rafts, necessitating the construction of new ones. Also, both films were shot in English, and then later dubbed over in German, and while I watched Fitzcarraldo in an English re-dub, here I was left with the original German dubbing, and it took me all of about 10-15 minutes to figure out the audio wasn’t matching the actors’ lips, so heads up if that is as much of a distraction for you as it is for me. As for the story, given that Herzog wrote the script in two-and-a-half days, and much of it was frankly ignored when shooting began (including the ending, which ended up completely different than what was scripted), there doesn’t seem to be too much of a narrative, but Herzog, ever the intrepid director, actually incorporates this listless plot into the film as well, making the entire thing come off as a hazy illusion of a voyage, a descent into madness for all involved, and it is this that makes for much of the entertainment value in the film.
I can only imagine what Herzog must have been like as a director in his heyday. I think I’d only want to imagine it, and not experience it for myself, since the tales of the making of his films are so renowned that I already have enough of an idea what it would’ve been like to work under the man. Hell, this film, the first of Herzog’s collaborations with Kinski, would prove to be such a harrowing experience for both men (Kinski being described as an uncontrollable raving madman) that by the end, Herzog basically had to resort to threatening to shoot Kinski if he did not do as he was told and not run off the picture. A film of this making would seem to be destined to be a masterpiece of some kind, what with all the hell Herzog and the crew went through just to get it finished, and thankfully, the result doesn’t disappoint; this is a hell of a film, though the entertainment value does begin to wear thin by the time the film eventually gets to its conclusion. But, at only an hour and a half, it doesn’t overstay its welcome either. This is one to see at some point, even with it being a direct sibling of Herzog’s later film; with everything that went into making it, it deserves at least a little of your time in watching it.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10