Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Aguirre The Wrath of God (1972)

“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 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

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.


Movie Information

Genre: Drama | History
Director: Werner Herzog
Actors: Klaus Kinski, Ruy Guerra, Helena Rojo, Del Negro, Peter BErling, Cecilia Rivera
Year: December 2000
Original Review:


A man with road rage confronts an elderly driver. Then all hell breaks loose. | Nullarbor


An animated film by Alister Lockhart &Patrick Sarell, posted on the Omeleto channel featuring “the world’s best short films.  ”Mad Max at 92?  This video reminded me of a Harlan Ellison short story—“Along the Scenic Route.”  This is the first Omeleto short I’ve watched; it won’t be the last.


My Woody Allen Problem


Is it so wrong to love Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia”?


The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott on reflects on art versus artist As an H.P. Lovecraft fan since my teens, I know what it’s like to try and reconcile admiration for an artist’s work with that same artist’s undeniably racist worldview.  I haven’t seen all of Woody Allen’s movies, but I’ve seen a lot of them.  Manhattan was one of my favorites.  Allen’s books were welcome doses of absurdity during my early university years.  Where do I go from here?  I’m really not sure.


From Scott’s essay:


Innocence and guilt are legal (and also metaphysical) standards, but when we talk about the behavior of artists and our feelings about them, we are inevitably dealing with much messier, murkier, subjective issues…. The separation of art and artist is proclaimed — rather desperately, it seems to me — as if it were a philosophical principle, rather than a cultural habit buttressed by shopworn academic dogma. But the notion that art belongs to a zone of human experience somehow distinct from other human experiences is both conceptually incoherent and intellectually crippling. Art belongs to life, and anyone — critic, creator or fan — who has devoted his or her life to art knows as much.


The second article, by Colin Fleming for, is a little more balls-to-the-wall.  Riefenstahl has always inspired that kind of response, whether loving or loathing.  She died at the age of 101, so she clearly wasn’t too stressed out about what anyone thought of her.


From Fleming’s article:

What galls me, though, is when people call out one work of art, based on something they know, or think they know, about the life of the person who created it, while letting every other artist skate — as in, pass on by, unchecked — simply because these geniuses of society have never read a biography in their lives. 

Because if you’re going to do the whole “art is not separate from the artist” thing and adjudicate on what people should partake of based on that, you need to stop going to the museum, never watch Turner Classic Movies again, never listen to the Beatles or just about any rock band, put down that classic novel, ditch Miles Davis and jazz, and if you think the people who made most of our best classical music were patron saints of SJW-dom, you are fooling yourself….

…I am aware of no finer sports film than Riefenstahl’s 1938 “Olympia,” which was so expansive and exacting as to require two parts totaling 226 minutes, and which is included in this box set. I’ve been watching it since I was 15 years old, mesmerized by what is tantamount to a Cubist-naturalism take on sports — which you wouldn’t think possible — and cinematic techniques that dazzled me in the same manner that Orson Welles did when I first saw “Citizen Kane.” 

Dictionnaire du cinema (Larousse) Édition 2001


Pas très au courant, mais internationale, comprehensive, et gratuite.  Le précis:


Le Dictionnaire du cinéma offre un panorama complet et fiable du septième art. Les cinématographies du monde entier y sont présentées par les meilleurs spécialistes, réunis sous la direction de Jean-Loup Passek. Près de 6 000 articles sont consacrés à tous les aspects du cinéma des origines jusqu’à nos jours. Mis à jour jusqu’au festival de Cannes 2001, ce dictionnaire est la référence pour tous les cinéphiles.


Films Worth Talking About:

Pictures of the Old World, Doctor Popaul, The Battle of Algiers, The Canterbury Tales, Deliverance, Cabaret, What’s Up Doc?  The Godfather, The Assassination of Trotsky, The Mattei Affair, The Seduction of Mimi, Lulu the Tool, Red Psalm, Last Tango in Paris, The Candidate, The Poseidon Adventure, Sounder, Heat, Sleuth, The King of Marvin Gardens, Fritz the Cat, Frenzy, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Lady Sings the Blues, L’Attentat (The Assassination), Solaris


The Bigger Picture

Films:  Fitzcarraldo (1082), Burden of Dreams (1982), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Woyzeck (1979), Cobra Verde)1987), My Best Friend (1999); Count Dracula (1970)


Music:  anything by the German musical collective Popol Vuh


Books:  Roger Ebert, Herzog by Ebert; Paul Cronin, Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed; Troy Howarth, Real Depravities: The Films of Klaus Kinski; Klaus Kinski, Kinski Uncut: The Autobiography of Klaus Kinski


The Word on the Street

Brilliant, beautiful, and desperately disturbing.   [mstornaso]


It is clear Herzog ‘focuses’ on the ridiculously high beliefs humans create for and hold of themselves – that they could actually “own” anything, “conquer” anything, outwit that which they do not understand, and by sheer Will cause anything they deem important, to exist. Herzog is NOT a cheerleader for the history of humans, but he is a ponderer… and we are fortunate he does it on film.   [futures-1]


One of the key elements in Herzog’s work is the use of landscape and the natural surroundings. The Amazonian jungle is a key third dimension in the film and really is a green hell, threatening and unforgiven. There’s no romanticism in Herzog’s view of nature. The continuing sounds of the running water and the birds are just as important for the story and the despair of Aguirre’s men as the ambient electronic soundtrack by the German ensemble Popol Vuh, the ultimate modern and very German pioneers in electronic music, mixing choral chants with electronic samples and organ music. To me it is simply astonishing Herzog decided to use their in a film about 16th century Spanish explorers shot on location in the Amazon and somehow it works wonderfully, a perfect blend of image and sound. Hard to identify a very important element of the “natural soundtrack”: what’s the name of the bird that produces this whistling shriek, that is heard almost continuously in the background and is one of the most recognizable sounds of Neo-tropical rain forests? A Quetzal?

… Before the shooting started, Herzog and his crew were boarding for the plane that would bring them from Lima to Cuzco when the airplane had some technical problems. Since the airline company in question already had two or three serious accidents not long before, they decided to wait and take the next plane. Repaired or not, the plane left off anyway and crashed in the Amazonian jungle with the only survivor a young German woman, Juliane Koepcke. After weeks she finally reached a remote Indian village, malnourished, an almost fatal larval infection, close to death. Later Herzog would make a documentary about this, JULIANES STURZ IN DEN DSCHUNGEL (English title: Wings of Hope) (2000). Besides the already astonishing, many times near-fatal accidents and Kinski’s impossible madman behavior, this film seemed doomed from the start, like an old curse from the Incas.   [Camera-Obscura]


Filmed not far from Machu Picchu, the legendary lost city of the Incas in the mountains of Peru, the opening images of this film are breathtaking in their natural grandeur and visual scale. A long cavalcade of 16th century Spanish soldiers slowly winds its way, serpentine like, down a steep mountain face. It’s one of the most impressive and awe-inspiring openings in film history.   [Lechuguilla]



Two senior-level military men are allowed to bring females on an expedition worthy of Bird or Lewis and Clark – this at extreme expense. The obvious reason for the women is as breeders to populate the New Jerusalem of riches and religious conquest.
One woman we understand, an adult mistress to a noble soul. We learn more about her than anyone else save the ‘Negro.’ She is played by an accomplished actress, and acts. The other woman is a fifteen year old. A daughter, already aware of a forthcoming incestuous dynasty and resigned to a life with her deformed father in a magical future to be obtained only by passing through a barrier of tests. She, like the local Indians, is played by a non-actress, in fact a girl plucked out of a Peruvian high school nearly at random.
The less she does, the more transcendent her presence.   [tedg]


“Aguirre” was made in the early seventies, a time when the Western world, which had regarded itself as the epitome of civilization, was more and more questioned in its self-delusions. The Europeans had initially presented themselves as the ambassadors of God’s word to barbaric Indians but they had come to plunder, enslave and destroy. Their real motive was endless greed. Even if we have got used, since then, to hear that type of message, it still remains quite actual nowadays.   [francheval]


Essentially every Spaniard in the film engages in treachery at least once, including the holy man who utters one of the most searing lines of the film: “You know, my child, for the good of our Lord, the Church was always on the side of the strong.” Ouch.   [ccamp89]


Werner Herzog claims to have written the screenplay in two and a half days , he wrote a good portion of it while traveling with his soccer team, during games and on bus rides . Rare musical score and colorful cinematography , though most of the film, as well as several other features by Werner Herzog, was shot on a 35mm camera that he stole from his film school . The motion picture was originally directed by Herzog , though he did not storyboard a single frame of the film and ll of it was shot and framed spontaneously. In 1988 was realized another version titled ¨El Dorado¨ by Carlos Saura ; because of a similarity in plot and characters, the movie suffers by comparison but stands on its own as a less fantastic version of the same travel of obsessed adventurers…

The picture is based on real incidents , these are the followings : Together with his daughter he joined the 1560 expedition of Pedro De Ursúa down the Marañón and Amazon Rivers with 300 Spaniards and hundreds of natives ; the actual goal of Ursúa was to send veterans from the former Peruvian civil wars away, to keep them from troublemaking, using the Eldorado myth as a lure . A year later, he participated in the overthrow and killing of Ursúa and his successor, Fernando De Guzmán, whom he ultimately succeeded. He and his men reached the Atlantic (probably by the Orinoco River), destroying native villages on the way. On March 23, 1561, Aguirre urged 186 captains and soldiers to sign an act which would proclaim him as prince of Peru, Tierra Firma and Chile. He is reputed to have said in 1561: I am the Wrath of God, the Prince of Freedom, Lord of Tierra Firme and the Provinces of Chile In 1561, he seized Isla Margarita and brutally suppressed any opposition to his reign, killing many innocent people. When he crossed to the mainland in an attempt to take Panama, his open rebellion against the Spanish crown came to an end. He was surrounded at Barquisimeto, Venezuela, where he murdered his own daughter, Elvira, “because someone that I loved so much should not come to be bedded by uncouth people”. He also killed several followers who intended to capture him. He was eventually captured and shot to death. Aguirre’s body was cut into quarters and sent to various cities across Venezuela.   [ma-cortes]


“Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.” –Werner Herzog….

When I watch Herzog’s films I think of his words, “If I had to climb into hell and wrestle the devil himself for one of my films, I would do it.” Each his film deserves to be wrestled for.   [Galina_movie_fan]


Although it’s more a personal comment from Walter Hill on Vietnam, Southern Comfort (1981) covers similar ground (better trained & equipped Soldiers terrorised/killed in a strange & hostile environment by the poorly trained & equipped locals) I feel it is much more successful dramatically & a much more rewarding experience.   [Goliathreturns]