In my eyes, this is the ultimate film. Aguirre: The Wrath of God often gets overshadowed by it’s reputation as ‘that’ film. ‘That’ film that introduced Herzog/Kinski tensions to alarming new levels. ‘That’ film that caused crew to be ill with fevers, shot by natives and, indeed, shot by Kinski. And of course, ‘that’ film that saw the shoot fall foul of the dangerous and absorbing rainforest that also happened to be the film’s star. What lies beneath all of the shooting difficulties, rumours and hyperbole is a majestic triumph of a film. A nihilistic exploration of the utter futility of life juxtaposed with the lethal hubris of mankind.
It houses Kinski’s finest performance as Aguirre himself, a role which is both beautiful and terrifying to watch on screen. As a viewer, one cannot differentiate between Kinski giving a phenomenal portrayal of a crazed and terrible madman, and Kinski letting his notorious personality shine through, an unhinged glint in his eye. The story itself rings familiar with Heart of Darkness, as we follow Aguirre and his gold-thirsty band of men up the Amazon in search of the mythical El Dorrado. One of the real stand-out factors in the film is Herzog’s use of dramatic irony: the men are searching for riches they will never find. They are fighting enemies in the trees that they will never see, let alone defeat. Their actions are hollow and fruitless. Yet this is where their ego and their vanity shines through, as they push on through the jungle, their plans becoming richer and wilder.
It is a piercing comment on both man’s desire and the existential meaningless of being. Aguirre: The Wrath of God looks beautiful, having been recently restored by the BFI, and the soundtrack by German Krautrock band Popol Vuh is as haunting as ever. This is a masterpiece and by far the most accurate cinematic portrayal of life, ambition and nothingness. One cannot help but think of Nietzsche whilst watching: “If you stare into the abyss, the abyss also stares into you.” The Amazon is certainly Aguirre’s abyss, and he becomes more monstrous with every step he takes along it’s empty banks.
Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) is released in a new Blu-ray edition from the BFI from 19 May.