“Meat is floating by”
Talk about the heart of darkness. It’s completely unsurprising that Francis Ford Coppola would admit to using Werner Herzog‘s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes [Aguirre, the Wrath of God] as inspiration for his Apocalypse Now because they epitomize the stark moral depravity of warped conquering “heroes”. The quiet rage underlying every action as greed overtakes loyalty and hubris replaces strategy are all too real against the serene jungle settings hiding hidden antagonistic forces to complement the ones waging war inside these soldiers’ minds. For Conquistador Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), the call of fortune and power from El Dorado is too much to simply dismiss. Wresting control from his superiors would be so easy, descending to Hell for a taste of unparalleled glory too sweet to pass up.
I can’t deny the behind the scenes stories from the set helped my enjoyment of the film. Legendary rumors of Herzog forcing Kinski to act at gunpoint; the two having different ideas of how Aguirre should be played wherein Herzog would incense Kinski before each shot so he would be tired and subdued enough to deliver the subtle menace the director coveted; and re-writing script points to incorporate the flood that destroyed their rafts. This stuff may be more interesting and entertaining than the film itself—it’s no wonder documentary My Best Fiend and mocumentary Incident at Loch Ness have proven so effective. The relationship shared between Herzog and Kinski was much greater than their work together, but the art has merit too. They aren’t classics without cause.
Aguirre is a slow burn—so don’t expect action as much as psychological turmoil. The premise revolves around an expedition led by Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés) to discover the legendary El Dorado and all the golden riches it holds. Worn down with depleted food stores, he realizes the entire search party cannot go on. He decides to form a smaller advance team to be led by Don Pedro de Ursa (Ruy Guerra) with Aguirre as his second-in-command to move forward, find the city, and report back on behalf of Spain. Fat and incompetent Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling) accompanies them as a representative of their mother country and Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) carries God’s word to provide protection and convert any savages along the way.
Herzog portrays the expedition from the latter’s point of view. In an opening text prologue he explains that Carvajal’s diaries are all that remain from this group’s failed attempts at glory and the character therefore narrates the plot throughout. The names are historically accurate, but the story isn’t. Carvajal went on journeys like this, but it’s said he was not on the one where Aguirre went mad. Is this fabrication something we should worry about? No. Herzog wanted to tell Aguirre’s tale and he needed a voice to tell it. Carvajal became a means to an end and it works. The filmmaker has no duty to respect absolute fact; he only must provide a captivating story with which to follow to its conclusion. That goal succeeds.
We can see the madness in Kinski’s eyes from the first shot, foreshadowing the mutiny to come. It’s not long before Ursua’s compassion opens the door to label him ill fit to rule. And when the anointed leader says he’d like to cancel the journey to return to Pizarro empty-handed lest they all die, Aguirre is able to denounce him as a traitor while also whispering promises of wealth to any who will listen. Why should they turn back on orders from someone far away? Why not keep going and claim El Dorado as theirs since finding it makes them more powerful than the leaders back home? They are therefore traitors to the crown, loyal to greed. Whoever gets in the way is rendered expendable.
There are complexities beyond just Aguirre versus Ursua, usurper opposite loyal servant. Included in the mix are also two women: daughter to the former (Cecilia Rivera‘s Flores) and mistress to the latter (Helena Rojo‘s Inez). Flores gives us a glimpse at the compassion Aguirre must one day have possessed, a fleeting specter of love that has all but disappeared for country as it’s perverted itself for gold. Inez is Ursua’s strength, his faithful proponent spreading his righteousness once he refuses to speak in chains. And then there is Perucho (Daniel Ades), Aguirre’s pit bull doing his ruthless bidding when no one else will. He is the one person this mad man can trust, the others dreaming of gold but too timid to spill Spanish blood to acquire it.
Food becomes scarce, native arrows fly, and Aguirre refuses to stop short of his mission—an impossible journey everyone knows will eventually kill them. The men on rafts transform into savages without remorse or decency. They are the ones quick to murder when misunderstandings are ignorantly labeled as blasphemy. They are the ones willing to destroy their leaders over the chance that their fantasies may come true. They journey into the unknown without knowledge of terrain or language with slaves that they torture and yet inexplicably rely upon for survival. They are but meat in the water slowly drifting under watchful eyes in the trees, eyes biding time and in absolute control of these intruders’ fates. Aguirre is forever on borrowed time.
It’s a suspense-filled exercise waiting for the bottom to drop. The film becomes a race to see whether the Spaniards annihilate themselves or get mowed down by others. Death looms large, the enemy within proving more volatile than the one surrounding them. I see why Herzog looked for quiet menace from Kinski—subdued dread draws Aguirre as a man who believes he’s right. Going big makes it impossible to accept his men would follow him, an unhinged monster easy to cut down in self-defense. Because he’s so calm in his wrath, these soldiers fear what he might do. He’s in control, embracing bloodlust rather than letting it rule him. He’s on a mission and the only hope for survival is to follow close. Sadly, hope is never enough.