The opening of Werner Herzog’s 1972 masterpiece Aguirre, Wrath of God is a breathtaking contrast between the power of nature and the insignificance of man, capturing the theme of the movie with hypnotic authenticity.
We begin in the heavens, a shot of thick swirling clouds, before cutting to a densely forested Peruvian mountain, one side a vertical drop of 2,000 feet, the peak lost in thick fog. The camera zooms in to pick out a line of people perilously walking a thin trail down the cliff face, bravely descending from the clouds, but mere ants in the gargantuan scale of the landscape.
The year is 1561 and a Spanish expedition are seeking the fabled lost city of El Dorado. The mission will descend into madness and death, with conquistador Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) revolting against the royal command, his insanity leading them down river to their doom.
Werner’s original vision for the opening was to show a line of 400 altitude sick pigs tottering across a 17,000 foot high glacier, food for the Spanish army. However, the pigs did not appear sick enough to provide the necessary verisimilitude, so that idea was scrapped for the image of the humans descending from Heaven for their journey into Hell.
The mountain range location is near the iconic ruins of Machu Picchu, although Werner felt showing that landmark would look too picture postcard, and seem false. On the day of shooting there was heavy rainfall, making the narrow staircase, carved into the jungle mountain by Incas, even more slippery and dangerous. The hundreds of native extras, actors, horses, pigs, llamas and cannons that made up the convoy had to be secured by ropes. Finally the rains lifted, and the shots were captured, mostly in one take before night fell.
Werner was 30 when Aguirre was made, only his third movie as director, yet shows an obsession with realism he maintained throughout his career. He scouted locations in Peru the year before, sleeping rough as he trekked thousands of miles. He believed the movie should be shot in chronological order, the feverish voyage into Hell becoming increasingly stylised as they travel. Therefore, the opening shots of the death defying descent were also the first filmed.
The title of the movie comes from one of the conquistador’s many delirious proclamations: When I Aguirre, want the birds to drop dead from the trees, then the birds will drop dead from the trees. I am the Wrath of God. The earth I walk upon sees me and trembles. However, the story contradicts that delusion at every turn, nature cares little for the petty machinations, dreams or desires of Man. The 1000 strong army is depleted by accident, sickness and murder in the harsh jungle and raging torrents of a river they are ill-equipped to traverse, until Aguirre is alone on a free-flowing raft overtaken by a horde of monkeys. Nature is unconquerable, any attempt to do so can only lead to self-destruction.
With demented star Klaus Kinski’s fee taking up a third of the $370,000 budget, the movie was shot with a skeleton ten man crew, living on rafts floating behind the movie set on the dangerous river that formed the bulk of the shoot. The actor’s insanity, as well as the arduous conditions, made the reality of filming a mirror to the fiction being spun.
Klaus’s hysterical antics included near fatally attacking a fellow actor with a sword, firing bullets into a hut of native villagers and regular screaming tirades against the director that continued for hours each day. When the petulant actor threatened to quit the shoot, Werner calmly told him he would shoot him dead if he placed the film in jeopardy. Everyone had been through too much already for it to be ruined by such rampant egotism.
As difficult as it was to film then, it is hard to imagine anyone else even attempting such a mission in the modern era of CGI fakery. For Werner, it is the only way. Throughout his eclectic career he has strived for realism and honesty in cinema, with masterful dramatic works such as The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Rescue Dawn (2006) sitting alongside an impressive array of documentaries.
The workaholic artist has travelled the world, exploring nature and our precarious relationship with it, detailing the death of a naturist in Grizzly Man (2006), the lives of researchers in the Artic for Encounters at the End of the World (2007), descending subterranean catacombs with a 3D camera for Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), and down a volcano for Into the Inferno (2016). Werner’s clear-sighted intelligence shines through all his work, understanding the petulant ways of mankind are minor against the grandiose majesty of our environment, sure to outlast us all, as first shown in the stunning opening to Aguirre.