Just which face, menacing set of eyes and enraged presence is the epitome, the yardstick, the quintessential portrayer of cinematic intensity? Christopher Walken perhaps, his vague moralistic inklings often making the sadism and cruelty that bit tougher to swallow. The cold, placid features of 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano, as he nonchalantly performs chopstick surgery on a goons' eye. Robert Mitchum, half-savage brute, half psychological dumbbell, or any of the other usual suspects, ranging from James Caan to Lee Van Cleef. They are all good, bad, ugly and generally psychotic, but one goes that little bit further, staring out of your television, his personality and merciless authority embossed on the screen. His name is Klaus Kinski and his silent sixty-mile stare could shatter a whole sub-continent of Terracotta Warriors. He was endlessly obsessive in Fitzcarraldo, desperately unhinged in A Bullet For The General, and in Aguirre, The Wrath of God, for me both his finest performance and one of the most hypnotic portrayals of the thin line between power and corruption,madness and control, he finds himself in a dream role, which is in fact nightmarish for all watching. Under the tutelage of German master Werner Herzog, he truly becomes a filmic monster.
We begin and end in an unknown stretch of murky jungle, as a hopeless Spanish expedition try and find the mythical city of gold known as Eldorado. Hopelessly lost, a small group of soldiers is selected to scout ahead, and report back in a number of days. This includes the titular Aguirre (Kinski), who grabs the reins of power as the general in charge is killed in mysterious circumstances. As the group sail down the river, initially they are only at threat from a few native savages and the odd rapid, but as the story progresses the number of men gradually diminishes under the dictatorial stomp of Aguirre, and the rapidly encroaching hallucinations, diseases and dementia.
Herzog's maxim that 'people in extreme situations are always of greater interest' can be applied to a number of his features, both in front of the camera and behind it. As documented in 'My Best Fiend', a fascinating factual film which charters the sheer volatility of the Herzog/Kinski partnership, both brought out the best and worst in each other. When the cameras are rolling, the extreme nature of the shooting conditions (the absurd quest for the unseen riches of Eldorado, an undermanned trek through dense jungles and unpredictable rapids, could effectively be a parallel of the filming conditions) and the explosive antics of Kinski create a stunningly evocative portrait, both emotionally and historically. It's quickly forgotten that these are modern Germans pretending to be Spaniards of two hundred years ago, as the mixture of debonair camera angles (considering the conditions and budget of around 400 grand) and chillingly convincing performances combine to create a morbid atmosphere of ugly greed and a doomed lust for power. However, when Herzog stopped filming the tension spilled over into a volley of vicious insults and intimidation, reaching a climax several times with the director and his leading man pointing loaded guns at each other. It's a horrible truth, but you really can feel this sensation of danger when Kinski is in shot, as if his seething rage at the man who he can see just behind the camera clashes beautifully with his devotion to the role, in a most spectacular manner. This very strange mixture of reality and fiction is enhanced to breaking point with the heavily improvised style of directing and acting. In short, the nastiness on set makes this film markedly aggressive, a streak of viciousness which tears down the serene sub-tropical surroundings, and spits out the winding river. This stubborn determination on behalf of Kinski and Herzog to create a journey that transforms from physically gruelling to psychologically massacring in the eerily beautiful jungles, makes a film which stops being a story about half-way in, choosing instead to examine the psyche of megalomania and delusion in a trip as horrible and helpless as 2001's was fantastic and vibrant. The whole journey metaphor is used in a manner similar to the more complex but less effective Apocalypse Now, which I assume was influenced by this film.
A common complaint I've heard against this film, is that it is simply too overpowering to either enjoy as entertainment of brainfood. This is true, the film is difficult to sit through, but arduous viewers prepared to brave Kinski, the endless density of the scenery, the haunting score of Popul Vuh, and the general resonance of sustained negativity will get something out of this film. That thing however, will probably be a strained and displeased face, some wearily unhappy eyes and a six-inch soiled brain. To be in the presence of these two emphatic men though, is surely worth the burden. A journey beyond darkness and into the pitch blackness of evil and insanity. In German.