Our exploration of classic cinema (curated by Roger Ebert’s essay collection The Great Movies) brings us to Aguirre, the Wrath of God, an early feature from German filmmaker (and noted crazyman) Werner Herzog. The film stars Klaus Kinski as Lope de Aguirre, a Spanish soldier who overthrows his superiors in a mad grab for power during an expedition in search of the fabled South American city of gold, El Dorado.
Herzog brings cinéma vérité-like styling to his period narrative. Everything is very straightforward; there are very few elaborate set-ups or compositions. Herzog just allows his cast to present the material. It is a method that Herzog uses so effectively in his documentary work as well, but his restraint is especially impressive on a production like this.
The amount of work that must have gone into Aguirre is astounding. The cast is huge; the majority of the runtime is spent with dozens of Spanish conquistadors and Indian slaves, a surprising number of which get at least some level of characterization. The production design is endlessly impressive: cannons, armor, sedan chairs, huge rafts; all are recreated here, not just for show, but also to be used practically. This meticulous attention to detail is what makes Herzog such an important filmmaker, but it can also make him hard to work with.
Herzog famously clashed with Kinski during this production (and others). The two madmen tormented each other over the course of seven films, but this heated rivalry produced amazing results, which can be seen in Aguirre. Kinski’s unhinged performance is quietly intense, likely providing the inspiration for similarly conniving characters for years to come.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a great example of minimalist filmmaking, a statement that amusingly contradicts the amount of work that went into it. It is proof that vision and hard work pays off immensely.