Herzog’s aesthetic vision and physical dedication is evident from the first majestic frame of Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
Werner Herzog jumped on a seven-foot cactus after shooting wrapped on his second feature, Even Dwarfs Started Small. When one of the cast members was injured in a fire, the director promised “If all of you survive this shooting … I will do the big cactus leap.” For many filmmakers, this baptism by cactus would be more than enough proof of their dedication to art. Herzog was just getting started. If production work on his first features was no picnic, his next film would be his most dangerous—and greatest—yet.
Herzog’s aesthetic vision and physical dedication is evident from the first majestic frame of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. On Christmas Day, 1560, Spanish conquistadors in search of El Dorado descend a mountain path in the Andes. The camera seems to float above the travelers as they navigate narrow steps carved into the side of a mountain. Men carry supplies, cannons and animals up and down the valley as fog settles and gives the impression that the expedition has come down from the heavens. It’s one of the great opening scenes in cinema, and the setting was no special effect; Herzog took his cast and crew on location to the Andes, Machu Picchu and Amazonian tributaries.
The film’s narration is taken from the fictional diary of Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro), a monk who hopes to convert the natives to Christianity. But dreams of conversion and conquest are dashed by the quintessential Herzog landscape and madness as the crew descends from the heavens into hell.
Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) is second in command to Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra), but when Ursúa decides the river is too dangerous to continue, Aguirre orders him shot, and the bug-eyed star takes command. This was the first of Kinski’s storied collaborations with Herzog, and a third of the film’s modest budget went to the actor’s salary. Herzog frequently tells people that he calls every grey hair on his head Kinski, and acknowledged that he may be the most difficult actor in the world to work with, but from his first appearance in the film, the Kinski presence is unmistakable. Fresh off a botched tour where Kinski appeared as an angry Jesus (you can see footage of this in the documentary My Best Fiend), the actor was in the perfect megalomaniacal mood to take on this crazed character. Was he ever not an insane genius? Kinski needs only to slightly contort his grotesque features into a menacing sneer to make himself known, so commanding was his presence that you can tell that his fellow cast members, including the young woman playing his daughter, were genuinely afraid of him.
The legend that Kinski performed under gunpoint is a lie, but it’s not that far from the truth. Herzog famously promised to shoot the actor when he threatened to quit and leave the set. “I told him I had a rifle – it was actually his Winchester [that Herzog had confiscated from Kinski] – and that he would only make it to the next bend in the river before he had eight bullets in his head. The ninth would be for me.”
Herzog wrote the script in a kind of fever, composing it on a drunken bus trip with his Munich football team. “I typed the whole thing almost entirely with my left hand because with my right I was trying to fend off our goalie sprawled on the seat next to me. Eventually he vomited over the typewriter. Some of the pages were beyond repair so I had to throw them out the window. There were some fine scenes lost because I couldn’t remember what I had just written. They’re long gone.”
Aguirre was shot with a single camera, but the footage Herzog and cameraman Thomas Mauch shot does not feel at all compromised by the difficult production. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Herzog plays with the notion that the human head remains conscious for a few moments after decapitation: Aguirre overhears one of his men threaten to join the Indians and orders that the man be decapitated; an executor comes as the would-be defector counts to 10, and after the head of the condemned flies off, it says its last disembodied word:” Ten.”
The film ends as magnificently as it begins, the camera circling Aguirre left alone on a raft, the sole survivor of the expedition, tormented by monkeys that have climbed on the skiff. Herzog had hired natives to wrangle monkeys for the scene, but they ended up selling them to Americans, so Herzog showed up at the airport and pretended to be a veterinarian claiming the monkeys didn’t have their papers. He used the monkeys for one unforgettable scene and released them back to the jungle. The director put himself and others in danger in the name of art, then released them to their lives, as changed as the cinema that he imposed his mighty vision upon. His Spanish conquistadors were no match for the natural splendor and terror of the Amazon, but Herzog was, and he conquered cinema.