The extremities of the human psyche have for decades fascinated Bavarian auteur Werner Herzog; from the gleeful revolt of Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) right through to the drug-fuelled excesses of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009). More than one of the crowning achievements of his fiction filmography centres on the wild-eyed Klaus Kinski, who appeared in five of Herzog films as well as being the subject of the documentary, My Best Fiend (1999). The first and arguably the best of these collaborations was on a trek into the veritable heart of darkness in the exquisite Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), which now arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of the BFI.
Herzog has become renowned for his knack of shooting within natural landscapes over his varied career, and he makes fantastic use of that ability on this occasion. His opening shot, which is accompanied by a spine-tingling spiritual chorus, pans down from misty mountains to a troupe of conquistadors picking their way through the enveloping Amazonian undergrowth. The scale of their task – and their surroundings – is made perfectly apparent. Their expedition soon becomes bogged down and their leader dispatches a scouting party to find their destination, the aurea civitas of El Dorado. Gliding downstream on rafts, the vanguard don’t get far before their leader, Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra), is overthrown by the eponymous Don Lope de Aguirre, played by the scintillatingly ghoulish Kinski.
It’s a tremendous performance from the actor, filled with Machiavellian menace from his crooked Richard III-inspired hunch and rangy arachnid gait to that piercing blue glower. Aguirre barks orders at his ragtag band of adventurers as they float listlessly deeper into the jungle. Each of the characters lusts after different riches at their voyage’s end, but the hopelessness of it all is compounded by their dwindling numbers to sickness, hunger, and invisible enemies firing arrows from the shoreline foliage. None of this is enough to break the resolve of the megalomaniacal Aguirre, however, his desire not for gold but fame and glory. Insanity creeps ever more over his face the further the raft drifts, presumably aided by the murderously fraught relationship that director and actor purportedly endured during the hazardous shoot.
The story goes that Herzog at one point pulled a gun on Kinski to force him to complete a scene, and on the results it seems to have been the right call. The final dizzying shot of the deranged and angular conquistador, now ruler over only the army of squirrel monkeys rapidly infesting his vessel – proclaiming that he will next conquer Spain itself – haunts well beyond the credits. He may not have found El Dorado, but with the unyielding Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Herzog and his best fiend Kinski undoubtedly struck cinematic gold.