HERZOG & KINSKI: The Making of AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD (1972)
When Werner Herzog decided to make his film AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD there was only one actor he had in mind for the main character: Klaus Kinski – a man whose volatile reputation preceded him like the weather warning of an incoming tornado. Herzog had feverishly written a screenplay for his sixth film that pitted man against the elements in a story of all-consuming greed and single-minded madness. He had found the perfect male embodiment of these qualities...if he could survive the filming.
Herzog had some advance idea of what he was letting himself in for; some years before Kinski had rented a room in his family’s apartment and the director had witnessed first-hand the volcanic, inexplicable rages of which the actor was capable. In his entertaining documentary MEIN LIEBSTER FEIND (‘MY BEST FIEND’), Herzog remembers a blistering forty-eight hour rampage by Kinski, decimating the family bathroom to the point where the fixture damage could have been strained through a tennis racquet. Kinski was a gifted self-taught talent, a veteran of many films who channelled colossal passion instinctively, but was also a vessel for its unchecked reign as relentless egomania.
The timing of AGUIRRE had come just as Kinski had left his infamous one-man tour of Jesus uncompleted, the show had little to recommend it except the spectacle of the actor venting his un-Christ like spleen at the audience. This made it a must-see, filling major German arena venues before he suddenly quit. Despite this and his previous experience, Herzog was committed to using Kinski and two days after sending him the script, he received a 3am phone call of intense ranting that turned out to be Kinski’s great excitement at undertaking the main part.
AGUIRRE is set during the Spanish Conquistador conquering of the Incas of South America in 1560. Hearing the subjugated Indians speak of a fabled city of gold, El Dorado, a nobleman Pizarro leads a team of soldiers and nobles along with one hundred Indians along the Amazon to capture the city and its mythical treasure. Their number includes Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, (Del Negro) a priest who sees their mission somewhat naively as a religious one “to spread the Word of God”, though even he is tempted by the lure of enabling hallowed Catholic artefacts to be fashioned from such wealth. The church’s arrogant trampling over the indigenous culture to convert them by force is clearly no more altruistic than the soldiers’ plundering, for all its holy sanctioning.
The reckless men, and their accompanying fair ladies, fall victim to their own corrosive greed for power and money, none more so than Lope de Aguirre (Kinski), a lieutenant smouldering with treacherous cunning. Pizarro realises the inadequacy of their provisions along the epic journey, and orders two rafts of 40 of the men led by Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) to go out as a search party seeking food and information about the hidden hostile natives. Aguirre sees his chance to manipulate destiny for his own ends. He arranges a henchman to blow apart a trapped raft with their cannon, and leads a mutiny against Ursúa rather than turn back to their original camp. Aguirre is seized with the pioneering zealot’s confidence of Cortez. Nothing will stand in his way of taking El Dorado. He installs the fat Guzmán, (Peter Berling) from the Royal Spanish lineage, as their puppet Emperor-to-be, flattering the corpulent dimwit whilst biding his time as the power behind the throne. After a kangaroo court presided over by Brother Gaspar declares Ursúa guilty of treason, Guzmán surprisingly offers clemency, but both ‘Emperor’ and the Don’s days are numbered – the former is hanged and the latter strangled.
Now the way is clear for Aguirre’s true intent – to take power himself as Emperor of El Dorado, severing all ties with Spain. Like all before him, he foolishly underestimates the prowess of the native Indian tribes along the river. Finally, with the mythical city nowhere in sight, he is monarch of a raft of mortally-wounded followers, the only man standing…
AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD is a powerfully impressive epic about the darker qualities of mankind’s adventurousness: the selfish and self-destructive pursuit of material reward and cultural dominance, as opposed to the heroic taming of unoccupied territory such as the Moon. Kinski, his eyes blazing like hot coals, is perfectly cast as the lightning rod of the film, a terrifyingly driven ogre ferociously bullying the woefully-unprepared soldiers and enslaved Indians, and all too briefly showing a tender concern toward his own daughter. Aguirre sees himself not as the Messiah but as a divine weapon of biblical scale - “I am the wrath of God!” empowered to control all of wildlife and nature. As such, Kinski is electrifying and entirely believable.
The establishing scene of the film, the calm before the gathering storm, is a thing of beauty, a snake-like procession down a mountain of the silent troops and their gear accompanied by a haunting score by the rock group Popol Vuh. It is almost entirely depicted in master shots so we can drink in the splendid landscape that dwarfs these reckless human beings. In shooting this sequence, Herzog recalled feeling a kind of spiritual perfection of purpose. Puncturing this poetic imagery was Kinski’s crude egotism; he was enraged at not being the centre of attention here and could not appreciate that any natural landscape could be as interesting as the human face – more specifically his. Either as punishment or sensitivity, Herzog in fact removed all close-ups of him that were intended later on in the scene.
As filming progressed, director and lead actor gradually battled each other as much as the conditions. Kinski wanted to play Aguirre as a crazed madman. Herzog felt a quieter, contained menace would be more effective. He realised as he got to know Kinski’s behaviour that by inciting one of the actor’s childish tantrums he would then get it out of his system so a calmer state would be left to use in the take. However, this was immensely debilitating to the production to the point where a threatened leaving by Kinski caused Herzog to seriously threaten to kill them both. The genuine Peruvian Indians used in the film were perplexed by the actor’s outbursts. Their culture was much more serene and gentle in resolving problems, leading the head of their tribe to sincerely offer to kill the troublesome actor if Herzog gave him the word. The director kindly rejected this – owing to the further scenes that needed filming.
Herzog acknowledged that sometimes his leading man’s instincts and skills were valuable. The actor had developed a shrewd understanding of camera technique. He showed Herzog a highly effective improvement on the usual dull way of entering the frame in profile (sideways on) and then facing forward. He perfected a move Herzog nicknamed the ‘Kinski spiral’ where the actor would pivot round the camera fluidly as he entered the shot, an arresting and much more interesting visual trick.
On screen, the trials were worth the demands. AGUIRRE’s exotic imagery, passions and conflicts over power and faith echo in later films such as THE MISSION (1986). A more direct influence though was on APOCALYPSE NOW. Coppola was inspired by Herzog’s epic vision when creating the visuals for his meditation on war (the awful anticipatory silence as the raft sails into hostile enemy territory for example). He similarly found that the making of the film became the material for it. Both directors had begun with a loose script and changed the text organically during production.
There are many memorably staged scenes. The discovery of the enemy camp with evidence of cannibalism is macabre, as is the sequence where predatory tribesmen flit in and out of the jungle calling repeatedly to each other as they watch the Spanish pass them – translated chillingly as “Meat is floating by”. Amidst the awful human degradation of the down-river passage, there is even a moment of black humour as a soldier is pierced by an arrow: “The long arrows are getting fashionable” he deadpans as he keels over.
Herzog had managed to make AGUIRRE for the incredibly low budget of $370,000 (a third of which was spent on Kinski), which had been arduous enough to raise much less eke out on a location picture deep in the Amazon rainforest. The film struggled to find a mainstream audience on release, yet gained a great cult following on the arthouse circuit and is now acclaimed as a masterpiece.
In spite of their tempestuous relationship. Herzog and Kinski went on to collaborate in four more highly-regarded projects that channelled the latter’s undeniable searing intensity well including NOSFERATU, WOYZECK and COBRA VERDE. FITZCARRALDO, their second, is the most reminiscent of AGUIRRE’s cruel obsessive mission of madness, the tale of an industrialist who insanely demands the dragging of a full-sized steamship through the Amazon (actually undertaken for real during filming) to access rubber for the funding of an ‘opera house for the peasants’ dream. The logistical nightmare was an apt metaphor for Herzog’s ongoing artistic personal battles with Kinski. An example of these one-man cyclonic outbursts can be seen in MEIN LIEBSTER FEIND from the set of FITZCARRALDO where Kinski rails against the production manager for perceived poor quality of location catering.
Ultimately Herzog was exhausted by his leading man’s constant rages over the years and they severed all ties, but not before Kinski enlisted the director in a bizarre request of his own. Writing his autobiography, the actor feared the public would find it boring if their working relationship was described in glowing ‘luvvy’ terms, so he asked Herzog to help him create fictitious insults he could level in print at the director. At least they spent a happy afternoon doing something demented together.
(One final point: Lest we think that Klaus’s clashes were solely a personality mismatch between Herzog and him or circumstantial, there’s an insightful video on Youtube by director David Schmoeller about the making of their horror film CRAWSPACE together in 1986. In ‘Please Kill Mr Kinski’, Schmoeller recounts Kinski’s on-set insanity in even more alarming terms. He mercilessly abused his power, systematically emasculating his poor director’s authority by insisting on removing the calls for ‘Action’ and later ‘Cut’, Kinski haughtily decreeing that he will begin and end only when he is ready. The title plea, considered half-seriously, sounds strangely familiar…)