The International Lens: Aguirre, The Wrath of God (dir by Werner Herzog)

Take a moment to picture this: Klaus Kinski, drifting by on a raft with a bunch of monkeys.

There’s a lot of memorable scenes in Werner Herzog’s 1972 film, Aguirre, The Wrath of God.  However, for me, this will always be the film where Klaus Kinski ends up on a raft with a bunch of monkeys.  It feels like an appropriate fate for Aguirre, the Spanish conquistador and proto-fascist who Kinski plays in this film.  After spending 90 minutes listening to Augirre rant and rave about how he’s destined to conquer South America and how he will always be known as “the wrath of God,” it’s easy to look forward to him being reduced to being a somewhat pathetic figure, commanding a raft full of monkeys.

And yet, what’s odd, is that Aguirre never quite become as ludicrous a figure as you’re expecting him too.  Even though he’s obviously been driven mad and the Amazon rain forest is closing in on him, there’s nothing desperate about Aguirre.  He still believes in himself.  He still believes in his destiny.  He still believes that every decision that he’s made has been the right one.  It’ll take more than a bunch of monkeys to defeat Aguirre!

Filmed on location in South America, Aguirre, The Wrath of God claims to be based on a true story.  We’re told that the film was adapted from a journal that was kept by a 16th century priest named Gaspar de Carvajal.  And while it is true that a Dominican missionary named Carvajal did publish several accounts of his journeys to the New World and while the film itself is full of people who share their names with actual historical figures (Pizarro, Pedro de Ursua, and Lope de Aguirre, being just three examples), the film’s story is itself fictional, though plausible.  This is one of those stories that may not have happened but the viewer can’t help but feel that maybe it should have.

The film deals with an expedition of Spanish conquistadors making their way through South America, searching for the fabled country of El Dorado.  The conquistadors, whio are first seen awkwardly climbing down a huge mountain in their full armor while dragging along cannons and treasure chests, are led by Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés).  Pizarro orders 40 members of the expedition to scout ahead by taking a raft down the Amazon River.  Pizarro places Ursua (Ruy Guerra) in charge of the scouting expedition while naming Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as second-in-command.  The hope is that the scouting expedition will return in one week with news of what’s ahead.  Of course, it doesn’t work out that way.

Aguirre is Klaus Kinski’s signature role.  Herzog, who knew Kinski when the latter was a young actor renting a room in Herzog’s family’s apartment, specifically wrote the role with Kinski in mind.  Aguirre would be the first of several legendary collaborations between Herzog and Kinski.  In Kinski, Herzog found the perfect actor to embody his belief that chaos was the determining factor of the universe.  And, in Herzog, Kinski found one of the few directors who truly knew how to harness his manic acting style.  They were a perfect match and, of course, they often hated each other.  During the filming of Aguirre, Herzog and Kinski reportedly argued so frequently over how Aguirre should be portrayed that Kinski threatened to leave the jungle at one point.  Herzog responded by saying that, if Kinski tried to leave, Herzog would first shoot him and then himself.  It was not the last time that Herzog would threaten to kill Kinski.  In fact, after Kinski’s death, Herzog made My Best Fiend, an entire documentary about their difficult but often worthwhile collaboration.

Kinski reportedly wanted to play Aguirre as a ranting madman while Herzog wanted a subtler interpretation.  Judging from the end results, they agreed to meet somewhere in the middle.  From the first minute we see him, it’s obvious that Aguirre holds everyone and everything around him in contempt.  He hates the other members of the expedition.  He despises the jungle that surrounds them and the river that he’s soon be floating down.  Even when he’s dealing with his own teenage daughter (Cecilia Rivera), he never smiles or shows anything resembling affection.  He glares at the world with distrustful eyes.  And yet, everyone follows him because he seems to be the only member of the expedition who is not intimidated by the river or the jungle.  He promises his followers that they will be kings and that they will be rich and he says it with such authority that it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to ask how he can be so sure.  Even when it starts to become apparent that Aguirre is losing his sanity, he’s too intimidating a figure for anyone to try to stop.  When one member of the group starts to complain about Aguirre’s leadership, Aguirre chops off his head.  (The head continues to talk for a few seconds before falling silent.)  As the film progresses, Aguirre grows progressively more and more unhinged.  By the end of the film, he’s come to stand-in for fanatics through history.  Every dictator, the film seems to be saying, started out as an Aguirre.

In fact, the only things that’s not intimidated by Aguirre is the jungle that is continually threaten to swallow up the expedition.  In typical Herzog fashion, the jungle is both lushly beautiful and also home to all sorts of unseen threats.  As more than a few people learn as they float along the river, stopping to admire the jungle is a good way to get hit by an arrow.  Amazingly, no matter how many times the expedition is attacked by the potent combination of nature and angry natives, Aguirre never seems to get a scratch.  It may be that, in the end, only the insane can survive in a world with no rules beyond random destruction.

Aguirre was Herzog’s first big hit and it remains perhaps his best-known film.  It’s certainly features some of Herzog’s best work as a director and Klaus Kinski’s best performance as an actor.  In the end, you’ll never forget Aguirre and the monkeys.

Review: My Best Fiend (dir. by Werner Herzog)

How do I explain my fascination with Klaus Kinski, an actor who died long before I even saw my first movie?  Certainly, it’s not due to his charming screen presence.  Kinski never made any secret of the fact that he loathed most of his films and that loathing is usually painfully apparent on-screen.  Nor can my fascination be linked to the quality of the films he made.  With the exception of a few Italian spaghetti westerns and a set of films he made with Werner Herzog, the majority of Kinski’s films are of little interest beyond his performance in them.  Kinski’s film career was largely made up of playing countless murderers, rapists, and psychopaths.  By most (but certainly not all) accounts, he committed even worse behavior offscreen.

Yet somehow, Klaus Kinski has captured not only my imagination but the imagination of film buffs around the world.  A very good friend of mine has confessed to me that she finds watching Kinski in a bad film to be an almost erotic experience and I have to admit that I do as well.  Kinski had one of those faces that was so ugly that it was almost beautiful and, watching him onscreen, it’s hard not to feel as if the you are literally watching cinematic exorcism.  It’s as if the fictional characters that Kinski creates are little more than his real-life demons being captured on-screen.  A lot of actors specialize in playing insane but Kinski seemed to actually be insane.  Even today, watching his performance in Augirre, The Wrath of God on DVD, it’s hard not to feel as if Kinski is going to jump out of the TV at any minute and proceed to destroy your living room while screaming insults in German.  Even nearly 20 years after his death, Klaus Kinski remains mad, bad, and dangerous to know. 

I have to admit, I’ve always had a weakness for the whole fantasy of the bad boy with the wounded poet’s soul and, even middle-aged and ugly, Klaus Kinski was the ultimate bad boy.  Whether or not Kinski had the soul of a poet is another question and a difficult one to answer.  However, if you’re going to solve to riddle of who Klaus Kinski really was, that’s the question that must be answered.  And probably the best place to start your investigation is with Werner Herzog’s 1999 documentary/tribute, My Best Fiend.

Herzog directed Kinski in five films, beginning with the classic Aguirre, the Wrath of God in 1972 and ending with the unfortunate Cobra Verde in 1987.  The spirit of their collaboration can be seen in the fact that Herzog was rumored to have directed Kinski at gunpoint in Aguirre (though Herzog denies this) and that Kinski eventually physically assaulted Herzog during the filming of Cobra Verde.  In both the contemporary press and his own controversial autobiography (entitled Kinski: All I Need Is Love) Kinski regularly declared Herzog to be “an idiot.”  Herzog, for his part, regularly declared that he would never make another movie with Kinski just before signing him to another role.  Despite all this however, Kinski’s best performances were given in his movies with Herzog and no other actor has ever proven to be as perfectly suited to translate Herzog’s worldview as Klaus Kinski (though Nicolas Cage came close in last year’s Bad Lieutenant).  My Best Fiend is Herzog’s attempt to understand his late muse.

The film opens with a classic Kinski image.  We see a young, long-haired Kinski, standing on stage.  He’s in the middle of one of his infamous one-man shows and has decided that the audience is not paying proper attention to him.  He responds to this by literally attacking the audience. 

We soon learn that shortly after this footage was filmed, Kinski agreed to star in Aguirre, the Wrath of God.  Over archival footage of Kinski scowling and screaming in the Amazon, Herzog talks about both working with Kinski as an actor and about filming Aguirre in general.   (Even if you’re not interested in the twisted life of Klaus Kinski, My Best Fiend is fascinating as a behind-the-scenes look at filmmaking.)  Herzog talks about how Kinski regularly threatened to leave the production and how he responded by threatening to murder Kinski if he did.  Members of the film crew are interviewed.  They create a portrait of a monstrous man who, at one point during filming, shot off a cameraman’s thumb for no discernible reason.  And yet, as all of this is presented to us, Herzog also shows us clips of Kinski’s amazing performance in the movie.  Much like Herzog, we are forced to wonder how such a loathsome human being could also be such a gifted (and, in his admittedly warped way, sensitive) artist.

Though most of the film is devoted to Aguirre, Herzog does offer up anecdotes about his other collaborations with Kinski.  He tells how Kinski would regularly threaten to have him killed and he admits to often fantasizing about killing Klaus Kinski himself.  He goes as far as to mention that, during several film shoots, members of the crew would frequently (and seriously) offer to kill Kinski for him.  He also tells of the hurt of continually reading the latest Kinski interview in which Kinski would, without fail, refer to his director as being an untalented hack.

And yet, the portrait of Klaus Kinski that emerges here is not exactly negative.  Even as Herzog tells us that he often wanted to murder Kinski, he finds the time to visit the apartment where an undiscovered, penniless Kinski once lived.  He talks to people who knew Kinski when he was younger and they offer up stories of a young man who, while undeniably arrogant, was also refreshingly honest in his refusal to compromise his own unique vision of the world.  Herzog interviews two of Kinski’s costars, Eva Mattes and Claudia Cardinale.  Both Mattes and Cardinale describe Kinski as being gentle, calm, and supportive while dealing with them.  Mattes is especially touching as the amount of affection she felt for this supposed madman is obvious in every word she says.  Kinski, himself, is seen assuring Herzog that all the insults and extreme negativity in All I Need Is Love is simply a ruse to convince people to buy the book.  In short, Kinski is simply giving the people what they want. 

As much as I loved My Best Friend, there were still some things that I wish the movie had spent more time on.  Beyond a few tantalizing hints, we learn little of Kinski’s life before he first met Herzog (though we do learn that Kinski had spent time in a mental hospital where he was diagnosed as being schizophrenic) and even less time is spent on the hundreds of films that Kinski made without Herzog.  While this makes sense as the film is about Herzog’s relationship with Kinski, it also creates the impression that Kinski was an unknown before Herzog cast him.  This simply is not true as Kinski was already had something of a cult following as the result of appearing in several Italian spaghetti westerns.  As well, Herzog doesn’t go into near enough detail about the Cobra Verde shoot that eventually led to the end of his collaboration with Kinski.  Perhaps its understandable that Herzog would prefer to concentrate on obvious triumphs like Aguirre and Nosferatu but it’s still hard not to feel that he’s allowing his own ego to get in the way of telling the full story of his relationship with Klaus Kinski.

However, any and all flaws are rendered moot by the film’s final scenes.  We first see Kinski, during the shooting of Fitzcarraldo, angrily screaming and shouting at a crew member.  This is Kinski at his worst (though Herzog insists this is actually a rather mild example of Kinski’s anger), a raving madman who seems to intent of inspiring his audience to rise up and destroy him.

This is followed by a scene in that same Peruvian jungle where Kinski, smiling almost beatifically, gently plays with a butterfly. 

After seeing that scene, it leaves me convinced (as it did Herzog) that there truly was the soul of poet lurking underneath the monstrous facade of Klaus Kinski.