“Now I absolutely despise the murderer Herzog. I tell him to his face that I want to see him perish like the llama he executed. He should be thrown to the crocodiles alive! An anaconda should throttle him slowly! The sting of a deadly spider should paralyse him! His brain should burst from the bite of the most poisonous of all snakes! Panthers shouldn’t slit his throat open with their claws, that would be too good for him!…He should get the plague! Syphilis! Malaria! Yellow fever! Leprosy! In vain. The more I wish the most horrible of deaths on him and treat him like the scum of the earth that he is, the less I can get rid of him!….In every interview I call Herzog a cretin.”
Actor Klaus Kinski discussing his creative differences with his old friend and collaborator, German director Werner Herzog.
Sometime late last week, I came up with the perfect word with which to start this month’s review. I savoured the moment. No need to once more sit desperately in front of my computer screen, waiting for inspiration to strike. I would be taking this review by storm. I write nothing down, for it is the perfect word and is opening vistas in my mind. Two days go by. I wake up, and realize that the word is gone. I do not panic. There are still several days before I must begin writing. My memory is merely playing a sly trick at my expense. I cannot really have forgotten such a perfect word sent to me like an angel from heaven. More days pass. The word fails to return. I am reduced to hunting through thesauri. Nothing. The deadline is here. I curse the Muses’ perfidy.
But I will have my revenge. I am a professional. The loss of a single word, no matter how vital, will not defeat me.
If I cannot have the word, I have the story of the word. It is an irony that German director Werner Herzog could surely appreciate. His 1973 film Aguirre: The Wrath of God tells the story of a 16th -century Spanish conquistador who sets out across the mountains and through the jungles of Peru to find the fabled city of El Dorado, ending up mad on a raft of dead men and swarming spider monkeys. Had Herzog been in my position, however, he would have probably climbed to the top of Mount Loki and waited there, freezing to death, until the Muses got nervous and restored his inspiration. Herzog was not a man of half-measures. For Fitzcarraldo he had a very large boat dragged overland through jungle and across a mountain range. For Heart of Glass he had the entire cast hypnotized. And for Aguirre, he took his crew down largely uncharted stretches of the Amazon, floating them downriver on the same precarious rafts on which one sees the film’s protagonists risk life and limb. When the tributary on which they were filming rose 15 feet in one night and washed away half their equipment, Herzog wrote the disaster into his script. The opening scene of Aguirre is stunning: hundreds of men, with horses, a cannon, llamas, palanquins, and slaves snaking down a vertiginous trail through the Peruvian Andes. Nothing was faked. This is as close to the Heart of Darkness as most of us will ever get. Herzog is Francisco Pizarro’s and Hernando Cortez’s documentarist, born a few centuries late.
Researching Aguirre was fascinating. The careers of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski are as shrouded in misinformation, lies, myths, and contradictions as is some of the history they dramatized. Did Herzog really at one time make a living smuggling TV sets across the Mexican border? One article says Aguirre was done with a crew of eight and a stolen camera; another says a crew of five hundred, but the stolen camera was for a film 5 years previously. Legend has it that Kinski (who made his greatest films with Herzog, was his neighbour for years, and for whom Herzog made a documentary tribute called My Best Friend shortly after Kinski’s death in 1991) wanted to quit Aguirre halfway through the film and only stayed on because Herzog threatened him with a gun. Something happened. What differs in the various accounts are the numbers of guns involved, whether there were guns involved, who had them, and who convinced whom. Neither man is willing to let the facts interfere with the truth as he sees it.
While I might not want to have either Kinski or Herzog for a neighbour, if I’m looking for people to give me an inside picture of what the Spanish conquest of the Americas looked like I could find no better guides. Not that the soldiers of Herzog’s Don Lope de Aguirre actually conquer anything. They all die, killed by indigenous ambushers they never see, ravaged by disease, wasted by starvation. Their leader is a madman. He will outdo Cortes by finding El Dorado and creating an independent kingdom in the Amazon fastnesses, marrying his 15-year-old daughter in the process, and founding a new race. It all seems incredible until one reads the actual “Letter from Lope de Aguirre, rebel, to King Philip of Spain, 1561” (available on the Internet at www.hist.umn.edu/~rmccaa/colonial/Aguirre.htm) on which Herzog loosely based his film. Or until one recalls that Cortes’s and Pizarro’s Spaniards did find their El Dorados, their handfuls of soldiers bringing down civilizations.
What made it possible? I’d suggest psychotic optimism. That’s probably even better than the word with which I was supposed to begin this review. I wish it were mine. “Psychotic optimist” came up in one critic’s description of Kinski’s character in Aguirre. When you’re right you’re right. Psychotic Optimism 401 ought to be a mandatory course for all university History students. Forget Charles Atlas and bullies kicking sand in your face. You, too, can sweep empires before you.
Klaus Kinski was the perfect choice for the role. Marlon Brando might have been a close second. No one else was in the running. I would suspect Brando and Kinski never met; after all, the planet is still intact. Those two actors in the same physical space would have been the karmic equivalent of a matter/anti-matter handshake. Herzog described Kinski as “the only true demon of cinema.” I first saw him as a bad guy in a cheesy Italian western in a cheesy cinema in the red-light district of Paris. A moment to treasure. I don’t remember the film, but I do remember thinking that evil now had a face. Kinski made some 150 films between 1948 and 1989. Most had titles (in German, French, Italian, and English) like Heroes in Hell, Twice a Judas, The Beast That Kills in Cold Blood, Rendezvous with Dishonour, and Shoot the Living and Pray for the Dead. Reading the list of films in the biographical section of the International Movie Data Base is more entertaining than some novels. Kinski was a mercenary. He claimed to work for money, not art. Perhaps only a director as obsessive as Werner Herzog could have built him an enduring legacy despite himself.
With everything I’ve said, you might expect Aguirre to be a violent, intensely-paced film. Strangely, it’s not. It is harrowingly beautiful. It’s closer to Gericault’s painting of The Raft of the Medusa than to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Roland Joffe’s The Mission. More than through overt acts or anything he says, Kinski commands attention by his odd, reptilian way of moving his body (à la Shakespeare’s Richard III) and his extraordinary face. The Amazon river and the jungles surrounding it command by endless depth and eerie moments of silence. Rather than exploding outwards, the film implodes. The most apt metaphor might be the whirlpool which traps one of Aguirre’s rafts, holding its men in a slow, deadly spin between rock bluffs and rapids. In the film’s final scene, the camera circles Aguirre’s raft in a graceful dance of death and delirium. Credit must go to cinematographer Thomas Mauch; he worked under conditions that as often as not allowed for no retakes, no second chances. There is one long shot, of an abandoned Spanish horse standing motionless on the river’s edge, about to be engulfed by the jungle, that is one of the finest I have seen in any film. Herzog called it “the voodoo of location.”
That said, I think we have had enough of psychotic optimists. Let’s move on. It’s time for someone to put explorer David Thompson’s journals on film. We could then marvel at what courage, curiosity, and optimism can achieve without psychosis.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Still a masterpiece. Aguirre was one of the first films I chose to show when we started up our once-a-week repertory cinema in our local community centre a couple of years ago. I think everyone survived. Wikipedia has an excellent article on Aguirre, with a good section on the historical bases of the film. Roger Ebert included Aguirre in the first of his four books on The Great Movies(his review is available online at rogerebert.com).
Werner Herzog continues to be one of the world’s finest filmmakers. He’s a four-time winner at Cannes. I have a lot of catching up to do on his more recent work. I hope we’ll meet again in this column sometime in the near future.
If Hell ever needs a new overlord, Klaus Kinski could submit Aguirre as his resume. A true monstre sacré, one of the most terrifying actors in the history of cinema. Despite having 137 acting credits on Imdb, Kinski is only credited with 4 awards nominations & 4 wins. Kinski died of a heart attack at age 65. Only one of his three children attended the funeral. In an autobiography published 20 years after his death, Kinski’s older daughter Pola accused him of sexual abuse from the age of 5 to 19. His second daughter Nastassja filed a libel suit (later withdrawn) against her father when he published his autobiography in 1988.