Tag: klaus kinski

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
★★★ / ★★★★

Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” is about images that linger in the mind. It has a plot, a story, and dialogue that helps to connect the dots, but put the film on mute and the impact of the film is almost as deep and lasting. This is a mark of a great picture even though, admittedly, not everything it has to offer worked for me. For instance, the characters, including the protagonist, do not have much dimension to them. One can argue that perhaps that is the point: We are not meant to get to know their characters, just their circumstances—the doomed expedition in search of El Dorado.

Starting to get the feeling that the journey he is leading is foolish, Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés) appoints Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra), with Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), as second-in-command, to go further downriver to learn the whereabouts of a city that is believed to be teeming with gold. The smaller party is told that if did not return within a week, it would be assumed that they were dead. Pizarro and his remaining people would then return home.

The picture has an eye for natural beauty and pattern. The opening shot is astonishing, capturing about a hundred men walking in line down a mountain as fog hovers from above. It is like looking at a row of ants and we are taking a peek from the clouds. The perspective changes quickly, however, when the camera is placed within a few feet of the line. The men in armor and holding weapons look tired but formidable. The slaves appear exhausted but no complaint is uttered among them. As in the world of ants, there is a hierarchy among these foreign explorers in the South American jungle.

It is concerned with the hardships that the Spanish and the slaves are going through. They get tangled up in the vines, find difficulty wading through mud, and endure the pressing heat. It is made clear in the opening subtitles that this story is about death. So, it is not a question of whether these explorers will survive trial. We wonder how long they have left and under what circumstances they will cease to breathe. There is a question of limited supplies but then again the natives, mostly hiding behind the trees, have a talent for hitting their targets with deadly arrows.

Food is scarce but when it is shown, we are jolted to paying attention. At one point, the starving Spaniards discover what the natives eat after combing through burning huts. Later, a nobleman (Peter Berling) is shown gorging on food while his men are left counting corn kernels. Toward the end, men are eating moss between the logs of their raft. Herzog captures desperation on a visceral level in the form of basic needs not being met.

“Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes” is elevated by Kinski’s off-kilter but magnetic performance. Those eyes are often wide, as if in a constant state of shock, trying to see past the reality that El Dorado might just be an illusion. Though the actor plays the character with a limp, his character does not appear weak or vulnerable. On the contrary, it adds to his level of danger, as if he lunging forward to move the rest of his body might turn into an unpredictable attack.

Burden of Dreams

Burden of Dreams (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” is one of the most astonishing movies I have ever seen. “Astonishing” is the perfect word to describe the work because I sat in my chair mouth agape and eyes wide open, very curious as to how the filmmaker, his crew, and the native Indians he hired managed to take a real three hundred ton steamship up a sizable hill with a steep slope in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. I admired the film for its sheer physicality and Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams” highlights the challenges everyone faced during the filming of Herzog’s masterpiece.

It is interesting to see footages of Jason Robards and Mick Jagger, playing Fitzcarraldo and the sidekick, respectively, given that they were the first choice to play the roles. I found them ineffective, sort of goofy, and so the two of them eventually having to drop out turned into a gift in disguise. Klaus Kinski was exactly right for the role, effortlessly evoking an obsessive madness but remaining accessible enough to make us want to see his dream of building an opera house in the jungle to be realized. From the clips of Robards playing Fitzcarraldo, there is little manic intensity that can be felt instantaneously.

The documentary spends ample time showing some of the native Indians’ culture, from the way they live, sorts of food they eat, to the challenges they face against the government because they have no legal claims to their land. We get a chance to see that although the crew and the natives must interact, they have separate camps nonetheless. They do not even share the same food. There is talk of sexual needs while being so isolated out in the wilderness and prostitutes having to be flown in for the sake of preserving the native culture.

It is well-known that Herzog is quite a character. His reputation is best exemplified when he talks about the very same arrows that hit a man in the throat and a woman in the hip. They survived and so Herzog is ecstatic to point out that there is still blood on the arrows. He plans on giving the weapons to his son. Just the same, we are able to appreciate how the director works. Not once is he shown sitting on a chair and enjoying a cup of coffee. He is constantly up and about, trying to perfect every little thing because he knows that no detail is too small. It is then that we know that Fitzcarraldo is a reflection of Herzog’s obsession and ambition.

Herzog’s final product is so audacious and convincing, it was a surprise to me that some of the native Indians are able to speak and understand Spanish from behind-the-scenes. Watching the film, I felt so immersed into its world that accepting the reality actually takes effort. I cannot say that about very many movies and that makes it special.

“Burden of Dreams” cements my respect for Herzog. Say what you will about him: difficult, talented, intelligent, disturbed, megalomaniacal. He might be all of those things but I admire that he is an uncompromising filmmaker—and it shows in his work, taking art on already high level and further pushing the boundary as if there is none.


Fitzcarraldo (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A few great movies can be summed up in one word and it is not considered a hyperbole. With “Fitzcarraldo,” written and directed by Werner Herzog, the word is “fearless”—in ambition, scope, and execution. Coming into the picture, I have seen about a half a dozen images of a steamboat atop a sizable hill. I was dazzled then. But actually watching the massive boat being dragged from a river onto land and up a steep slope is something else entirely—it is a spectacle. Knowing that none of the images on screen are made by computer trickery adds to the raw sensation of witnessing something extraordinary.

Brian Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) has a dream: To build the greatest opera in the South American jungle and have Caruso as his star attraction. Building an opera house will require considerable funds. Since Peru’s rubber business proves to be very profitable, he hopes get into it by purchasing an unclaimed land, one that is teeming with rubber trees. The catch is in order to get there, one must go through dangerous riverbends and rapids as well as survive against hostile native people.

To immerse us in the story, Herzog makes a point to allow the scenes to unfold in a slow but nonetheless fascinating fashion. From the moment Fitzgerald is introduced, we are curious about him because his obsession appears to be indomitable. Kinski is perfect for the role because he creates a character whose frame, movement, and posture communicates a desperation to succeed. His one great failure, which involves an incomplete railway, still hangs over his head and we get the impression that if this latest project were to fail, it just might destroy him. Thus, before the exposition ends, we understand and sympathize with the protagonist. We root for his dream to be realized.

The picture has an eye for nature, from huge trunks of trees being sawed off to the majesty of the river up ahead, and once the journey is over, it feels as though we have gotten a real taste—one that lingers—of the Amazon River. Lesser movies that are shot on location usually fail to capture that feeling of presence. Here, because Herzog is such a perfectionist and he knows exactly what he wishes to capture and convey, we are in the moment every step of the way. The experience is one that is considered to be transportive.

It also has an eye for interesting faces, from Fitzcarraldo and his lover (Claudia Cardinale) to Fitzcarraldo’s motley crew on the ship (Miguel Ángel Fuentes, Paul Hittscher, Huerequeque Enrique Bohórquez). When the camera rests on an indigenous person’s face, whether it be that of a fierce leader or an innocent child, there is a regal quality in the faces without distracting remnants of one trying hard to give a performance. When they look at a distance, especially during a scene where they mourn for their dead, it is almost like they are telling a story. In a way, the film is similar to a documentary in that rawness is valued and treasured. We get a sense of a specific culture.

“Fitzcarraldo” reminded me a sensational feeling when I saw Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Santa sangre” for the first time. Both defy categorization. And both demand its images to be ingrained in our minds so deeply that it sets the bar for other movies of its type—if other directors—future, past, and present—are brave enough to take a similar gamble.