Starring: Klaus Kinski
Director: Werner Herzog
Distributor: Umbrella World Cinema DVD
If you view the colonisation of native countries like the intrusion of a foreign virus into a pristine body then Aguirre is one of the most virulent kinds. German auteur Werner Herzog created the character from historical facts surrounding the Spanish invasion of South America in the 1560s. When we first meet the famous Gonzalo Pizarro he is leading his men down through the mists along impossibly vertiginous Peruvian path. With him are two hundred Incan slaves and a team of fellow conquistadors including the crippled yet determined Aguirre and his beautiful teenage daughter.
It’s a shock to see such a delicate feminine presence among the troops clad in their uniform helmets and metal studded leather, and Herzog doubles the impact with the inclusion of another one, the commander’s betrothed. When they reach the swampy Amazonian lowlands, Pizarro dispatches both women down the river with their guardians as part of a search party occupying three makeshift rafts. The close-ups of their terrified faces as they swirl around in the boiling muddy waters reveal just how dangerous this shoot was. The camera spins 360 degrees revealing nothing even vaguely resembling a rescue boat or a second unit crew.
Conditions deteriorate further until Aguirre usurps the commander, installing in his place a puppet emperor. It’s pure madness driven by greed for wealth, power and fame and Klaus Kinski embodies this obsession in every pore of his character. His sheer physical presence is enough to make the flesh creep; his loping decrepit figure, reminiscent of Richard the Third, with flaming nostrils and huge blue eyes casting their crazed gaze over the impenetrable Amazonian landscape in search of the fabled lost city of gold, El Dorado. Even when every last member of the party lies dead at his feet and the raft is crawling with monkeys Aguirre conjures delusional dreams of grandeur and incest.
The turbulent relationship between Herzog and his leading man is legendary – the director apparently held Kinski at gunpoint when he threatened to walk off on him – but that only fuels the tension onscreen, a hypnotic spell that was cast again a decade later when the pair returned to the Peruvian jungle to shoot Fitzcaraldo. Whatever artistic demons made them do it, our cinema is all the richer for it.