December, 1560. Gonzalo Pizarro leads his band of explorers-cum-treasure-hunters-cum-soldiers out of the Peruvian Andes. Weighed down by the out of place trappings of modern warfare and ludicrous luxury items, the tiny band is dwarfed by its surroundings and chillingly out of place. On the fringes of the group stands a man wearing an incongruous bright pink shirt, a battered helmet, and a strange set of armor that seems to consist entirely of studded leather straps. When he moves, he leans backwards and walks stiffly, his body clearly ravaged by a difficult, violent life. Mostly, though, he watches, his enormous green eyes taking in the fear, malleability and desperation around him, while his impossibly broad, feminine lips embrace their permanent sneer. Like he does, we knew immediately that his time will come.
This man is Don Lope de Aguirre, the title character of what is arguably Werner Herzog's greatest film. Played by the inimitable Klaus Kinski, Aguirre dominates the film in every way, effortlessly manipulating the men around him by quietly turning his own ambitions into theirs. Despite Kinski's wild eyes and the character's eventual eruption, there's a surprising subtlety and intelligence to Aguirre, who grows in complexity with each viewing. Though at first he appears to be nothing but a terrifying, ambitious madman (the film's title, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, comes from Aguirre's own description of himself), repeated viewings reveal much more about the character, and shed further light on his companions. When Pizarro realizes his entire team -- complete with multiple cannon, a horse, and sedan chairs for the two woman they've brought along -- will never make it down river together, he decides to send a smaller group ahead to explore and report back (oddly, he sends both women, the sedan chairs, and the horse ahead as well). Ostensibly led by the dignified, almost entirely silent Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra), the advance team falls under Aguirre's sway in the first moment of conflict: When their rafts are washed away by a rapidly rising river, Aguirre takes action and has the men gather material for replacements before Ursua is even aware the rafts are gone. When Ursua attempts to assert himself, Aguirre violently resists, imprisoning the commander and killing one of his supporters. Not pausing to look back, Aguirre then spearheads the election of the "largest" (and only) noble on hand -- the rotund Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling) -- to the position of Emperor, and has the church's representative draw up a document declaring the little band not only in open rebellion against the Spanish throne, but also at the head of a growing empire, in possession of all the land around them.
All of this is done in virtual silence, with an eerie serenity. The rest of the men say not a word as Aguirre initiates his own mutiny, and they are persuaded to join the unanimous election of an emperor by just a look. No one objects or reacts, they simply wait. Herzog, meanwhile, keeps his camera mostly still, staring: Faces, trees or water fill the screen, accompanied only by ambient noise, or Popol Vuh's sparse, ethereal score. The effect of this pervasive emotional silence is twofold: First, it serves to amplify the character of Aguirre. As the only figure on screen to express ambition, thought and personality, he's immediately different -- and, in this almost Stepfordian environment, dangerous. Second, it gives the film a sometimes terrifyingly surreal air. Watching the film, one often gets the sense that the characters -- apart from Aguirre -- are spectators too, watching their lives take place. They express no interest in or reaction to anything that happens around them, and seem free of even the most basic instinct towards self-preservation. As a result, it comes as no surprise when they passively accept eating a few grains of corn while their emperor enjoys feasts of fish and fruit, or react not at all to the periodic storms of arrows that shower their raft from unseen assailants on the shore.
Whatever his environment, Klaus Kinski was an actor who never struggled to assert himself on screen; Aguirre is no exception. Set against a backdrop of passive, frightened men, Aguirre is almost godlike is his power to mold minds and force action, and he quickly turns the entire mission into a vehicle for his desperate need for fame and power. But he's not simply mad: Instead, he's an intelligent, driven man whose ambition has gotten the best of him; much like the men around him are powerless to resist Aguirre, Aguirre himself has lost control over his own desire. As is frequently the case in Herzog's films, however, this lack of normal rationality is not a weakness. Instead, it enables Aguirre to go further than the men around him, and to inch closer to his goal. At the film's end, when the raft is full of men nearly dead from hunger, Aguirre has the strength to stride ferociously between the bodies, still shouting to the heavens about his plans for the future, and still utterly dominating his world. The scene might be comical were it not for the surreal, quiet cocoon Herzog has created -- within Aguirre, this now-mad man is a riveting, fearsome, truly awesome figure. He's many things, but funny and pathetic are not among them.
Originally released in 1972, Aguirre has long been available on a solid Anchor Bay DVD. And, starting Friday, October 19, it begins a short a theatrical run at New York's Film Forum. While this is good news in and of itself, the fact that the print is brand new makes missing this rare chance practically inexcusable. As a huge fan of both Herzog and Aguirre, I've seen the film at least a dozen times, sometimes in 35mm, and I was stunned by the Film Forum's flawless print. The power of the film's physical beauty is so striking that, in a very real way, to experience it in this format, with this print, is almost like seeing it again for the first time -- utterly overwhelming. And, for those who have never seen Aguirre before, it will never be better than it is right now.