What defines a bona fide cult classic? Is it its bold, inimitable style? It’s army of loyal devotees, perhaps? Or is it its unconventional approach to the cinematic form as a whole? Whichever of the aforementioned attributes floats your monkey-infested raft, Bavarian director Werner Herzog’s 1972 effort Aguirre, the Wrath of God more than meets the criteria. A firm favourite among critics, filmmakers and arthouse admirers the world over, Herzog’s existentialist trek through the perilous Amazon rainforest helped to herald in the era of New German Expression and also introduced wildman Klaus Kinski to dumbstruck audiences.
Now newly restored and returning to selected cinemas in June of this year courtesy of the British Film Institute, Herzog’s third feature stars the incomparable Kinski – once described by Herzog as “probably the most difficult actor in the world to deal with” – as the titular Don Lope de Aguirre, a power-crazed conquistador explorer in 16th century South America leading a rag-tag cohort in search of the legendary city of El Dorado (thought to be the last refuge of the Inca race). Plagued by the elements, disease and lurking native archers, Aguirre’s force is slowly diminished, leaving only a handful of hallucinating survivors to drift towards destruction alongside their totemic captain – the self-styled “wrath of God”.
Based on the letters of a monk under Aguirre’s command, Herzog set off to shoot his film over the course of five weeks in an area of jungle near Peru’s wondrous Machu Picchu – one of a handful of remaining Incan ruins. Putting both his life and the lives of his crew on the line as they dealt with vast mountain ranges, rising flood waters and the region’s energy-sapping climate, the cash-strapped auteur pushed himself and his men to the limits of endurance in order to best capture Aguirre’s disastrous odyssey. Herzog even reputedly sold his “boots or wristwatch” to provide food for the expedition, proving the German director as obsessive and single-minded a pioneer as the monstrous Don Lope.
Arguably the biggest threat to the production’s completion was its infamous leading man. Aguirre was to be the first of five spellbinding collaborations between Herzog and ‘best fiend’ Kinski, which would include a remake of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Throwing himself into the role of the demonic Spaniard alongside real-life daughter Nastassja, Kinski lights up the screen at every conceivable turn. Waiting patiently for the ideal moment in which to overthrow Pizarro-sympathiser Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra), Aguirre’s Machiavellian ascent from skulking second-in-command to grandeur-deluded megalomaniac is one of the most hypnotic transformations ever committed to celluloid – complemented exquisitely by Thomas Mauch’s stark cinematography and Florian Fricke’s pan pipes-infused score.
Like so many cult masterpieces of its ilk, Aguirre, the Wrath of God began its theatrical life in a handful of dedicated exhibitors (playing in one particular Parisian cinema for a staggering two-and-half years) before gradually finding the worldwide acclaim Herzog and his disciples so richly deserved. Receiving a new lease of life thanks to the love and attention of film historians and our very own BFI, this is one ride down the river you’ll definitely want a ticket for.