Elaborating on the story of the mutinous conquistador Lope de Aguirre (c. 1510–61), Herzog mythologized history even as he dramatized his own working methods. Aguirre’s quest for a nonexistent “golden city” in the heart of the Amazon rain forest dovetails with the German filmmaker’s crazy attempt to recapitulate this venture, producing his own low-budget extravaganza in the same jungle location. (Herzog’s El Dorado would have been commercial success; Aguirre, at least initially, achieved only cult status.)
Aguirre gave Klaus Kinski his career role—a half-mad actor playing a full-fledged lunatic—but the filmmaker is the protagonist. The opening sequence—in which the Spanish expedition, complete with sedan chairs, llamas and Indian slaves, descends out of the Andes through the clouds—is a spectacular show of cinematic might. The exclamation point is a cannon that explodes as it falls into the river. “The spectacle is real; the danger is real,” Herzog later boasted. “It is the real life of the jungle, not the botanic gardens.” As with all Herzog, fiction is based in documentary—and vice versa. (The movie, which was shot in sequence, purports to be drawn from a fake historical journal.) Landscape is paramount; animals lend their behavioral presence. The camera is exceptionally mobile even as the action is shot midstream on wooden rafts. Each bend in the river compels the spectator to consider how this movie was actually made. Every shot suggests some sort of ordeal, even if it is only hanging out in the Amazon. The on-set tension was legendary. Herzog and Kinski each famously threatened to kill the other—the Method taken well beyond madness.
Kinski’s performance is curdled glam rock. Although he doesn’t do much more than project paranoid hyper-vigilance, his posturing commands the screen. (Literally: At one point, he pivots to push a horse out of his way.) “I am the great traitor,” Kinski maintains, “I am the Wrath of God,” and his guttural screech even sounds like Hitler. His character contrives fake trials and secret executions, expresses an ultimate desire to “forge history,” or stage it “like the others stage plays,” and leads his men to destruction. Even as Herzog worked out his own demons, he dramatized imperial conquest and its connection to European fascism. That Aguirre appeared during the final stages of the Vietnam War links it to America’s jungle madness as well.
As noted by his longtime champion Mike Atkinson, Herzog has always been an image-maker others have looted: His vocation is “making movies, not watching them.” Herzog’s river journey anticipated Coppola’s in Apocalypse Now (another example of auteurist psychodrama); Aguirre is the influence Terrence Malick’s over-inflated New World can’t shake. Herzog even attempted his own failed Aguirre remake with Fitzcarraldo (1982), but the earlier film is sui generis.
Is Aguirre an exotic thriller, a swashbuckler, a documentary? Manny Farber was reminded of “a bad Raoul Walsh adventure, an episodic, paceless film in which you’re wondering ‘will they make it or not.’” (Then again, he cited its “seething passion.”) The meeting between voracious explorers and uncanny aliens approaches science fiction.
The premise is scary. The tone is absurd. The mood, cued by the lush drone of Popol Vuh’s score, is languorous, even trippy. The drama ends in a fever of denial—someone hallucinates a boat in a tree, someone else dies from a nonexistent arrow. Alone with corpses and monkeys on a raft that drifts in circles as it is circled by the camera, Aguirre is the last man standing—ranting still, amid the illusion of brute existence.
J. Hoberman is a writer and curator, critic at the Village Voice from 1983-2012 and author of books including Midnight Movies, The Dream Life and Film After Film. Reprinted with permission of the author.