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.