Hello, everyone, and welcome to my newest feature, An Evening with Klaus Kinski. For the next two months I’ll be talking about some of my favorite Kinski films, and a few new ones that I haven’t seen yet. When it comes to actors or directors, I love someone with a big personality, and they just don’t get much bigger than Klaus. His performances are always larger than life, and his off screen antics were sometimes even crazier. In the course of tonight’s film alone, Kinski shot off a man’s fingertip, almost killed another with a sword, and cause the director to threaten to shoot him. The film I’m speaking of isAguirre, Wrath of God, his first with frequent collaborator Werner Herzog. His fevered performance made me a die hard fan, and I hope that my review will encourage a few folks to check out this flick.
The titular Aguirre, played by Klaus Kinski, is part of Fernando Pizarro’s expedition into the rainforests of South American in search of El Dorado, the fabled lost city of gold. When Pizarro finds his group hopelessly lost, he sends out a group of forty men to scout ahead for supplies or information on their quest. He gives leadership of the group to Don Pedro (Ruy Guerra) who is accompanied by his wife Inez (Helena Rojo). Pizarro also dispatches Aguirre, his daughter Flores (Cecilia Rivera), Brother Gaspar (Del Negro), and Guzman (Peter Berling) to join the exploratory force. Almost as soon as they depart, they find themselves beset with troubles from the raging rapids and Indian attacks. Aguirre soon undermines Don Pedro’s authority causing to the leader being shot and his second in command being imprisoned. Aguirre plans to have the easily controlled Guzman installed as the “Emperor of El Dorado”, but soon Guzman is caught up in his part and becomes mad with power. As they continue down the river, things go from really bad to much, much worse, and Aguirre’s quest for fame and power leads all to a bitter end.
Aguirre, Wrath of God may sound like a historical epic, but don’t let that discourage you from the film. While the setting may be the 16th century Amazonian jungle, the film’s real journey is an unsettling decent into madness. In some ways, it could even be considered a horror film exploring the horrors that erupt in men’s minds in a quest for glory and power. Aguirre, Wrath of God made its debut in 1972, the same year Unberto Lenzi delved into the jungles with his film The Man from Deep River and kicked off the Italian cannibal genre. While Aguirre and his companions have a run in with cannibals and quite a few hostile native peoples, Herzog stops short of graphic violence and cannibalistic mayhem choosing to augment his films with creepy imagery. Aguirre is also set apart from its Italian counterparts is the lack of animal violence. In fact, it was quite the opposite as Kinski was bitten by the monkeys that shared one of his climatic scenes. Lenzi and Herzog made two vastly dissimilar films, but both involve western peoples invading the primordial jungles and finding themselves in over their heads.
Werner Herzog first came up with the idea for the film when he read half a page about Lope de Aguirre in a friend’s book. From there, the film was written in at a fevered pace while Herzog was on the road with his football team, but his first draft was destroyed when a team mate puked on it. Herzog hurled the pages out the window of the bus they were traveling in, and unable to recall what he had written, he began again. The finished product had little to nothing to do with historical fact. As the film begins, it purports to be the recollection of Brother Gaspar from his journals. While the historical Gaspar was part of an expedition with Pizarro, Aguirre, Don Pedro, and others were part of a later group searching for El Dorado. Instead of an ill fated attempt to form a new country in El Dorado, the real Aguirre devised a scheme to oust the government of Peru instead. Herzog’s film was a pastiche of historical events, but he was not looking to make a document. Instead the director wanted to talk about modern issues of fame, power, and corruption through the lens of the past.
When Herzog set out to make this film, his first choice for the role of Aguirre was an actor who stayed with his family as a boarder, Klaus Kinski. After reading the script, Kinski was thrilled by the script, but the mercurial actor had his own ideas on how to play the part. Kinski wanted to portray Aguirre as a raving madman, but Herzog favored a more subdued, threatening performance. In order to get what he wanted, Herzog deliberately would irritate Kinski before a scene was shot working him into a furor. When Klaus’ had calmed down, the cameras would finally roll. Herzog got what he wanted, and the film is better for it. Kinski’s Aguirre is a man full of menace that lingers just beneath his placid laconic demeanor. This performance is essential for the film, and Kinski was rarely better than in this first collaboration with Herzog.
As I mentioned earlier, the production was not without its problems, and they mostly stemmed from conflict between Kinski and everyone around Kinski. When he got irritated by noise on the set from a group of card players, he fired a gun into the hut the game was going on in and shot off one of the player’s fingertips. As if that wasn’t dangerous enough, while filming a scene where Aguirre is driving his men, he hit one of the other actors over the head with his sword. If it was not for the small protection of the actor’s conquistador helmet, Kinski would have killed the man. The ultimate confrontation on the set came when the actor tried to leave the film. The story goes that Herzog followed Kinski, and brandishing a gun, Herzog declared that he would sooner shoot Kinski and them himself than let the actor leave. Kinski returned to the set.
While Klaus demands your attention as his limps across the screen, he did not have a monopoly on great performances on this film. Peter Berling’s Guzman provides some much needed comic relief, Ruy Guerra brings Don Pedro the essence of stoic nobility, and Del Negro’s Brother Gaspar is the guide though this world. Yet the other great performance comes from one of the most understated characters and characters. I was truly enchanted by Helena Rojo as Don Pedro’s long suffering wife Inez. Not only does she possess a unique natural beauty, she also gives a subtle performance that relies on pure acting more than dialog. I could read her worry, her fear, and her anger in every frame of film she appeared. Looking over her catalog of films, I don’t recognize any of the credit’s the Mexican actress has to her name, but I will surely be on the prowl for anything starring this beautiful and skilled actress.
One of the most astounding things aboutAguirre, Wrath of God is that Werner Herzog did not plan a single shot in the film. Instead, shooting with a 35mm camera he liberated from film school, Herzog and cinematographer Thomas Mauch set up each shot on the fly. To have captured the stunning panoramas and intimately framed close up that the film contains is nothing short of a miracle. Mauch and Herzog would collaborate on ten films during their career, and Aguirre was the fifth of these. These two must have had an extremely good working relationship and a skilled eye for their work. The film is beautiful, but it also creates an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere in the wide open expanses of the jungle’s river basin. This is also a great score to the film by German electronic musician Popol Vuh who would score several more Herzog films. The score reminds me a bit of the works of Claudio Simonetti, and while it would seem counterintuitive to have such a modern sounding score, it adds to the nightmarish quality of the film.