This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.
It is nothing new to say that the making of Apocalypse Now was a story to rival the movie itself. The cult around how complicated it was and how messy the experience has deepened the mythology of the story and it’s something you have to grapple with as you watch it. It’s one of the greatest movies ever made, no doubt, and the legacy is both the production and the result.
The Academy Awards winners for the year tell a different story about legacy. Apocalypse Now won for cinematography and sound, but the big prizes mostly went to Kramer vs. Kramer. Both are classics, but it’s a bizarre contrast, especially widening the scope to other heavily honored films in the same ceremony such as Norma Rae and Being There. You couldn’t deny Apocalypse Now, but it certainly didn’t fit in with everything else.
Apocalypse Now is the story of Heart of Darkness, a Joseph Conrad novel about going down a river and finding nothing good. It’s much, much more complicated than that, and the internal struggle that comes with external forces is the through-line from the classic novel to the war film. There’s a point between the two, however, and it is Aguirre, Wrath of God.
The creation stories behind Werner Herzog’s 1972 film certainly rival the stories you know about Brando losing his mind in the jungle. The director supposedly (depending on who you ask) threatened his star with a gun and famously screamed at him before most takes to keep his manic performance consistent. There are dozens of stories you could choose to tell the saga of Herzog and Klaus Kinski and I am not familiar enough to give a full summary. It’s enough to say that they were difficult with each other and it comes through on the screen.
What could you say about this performance that would do it justice? I suppose we start with the similarities, as this is another movie about going down a river and being forever changed. Francis Ford Coppola said that it was a huge influence on Apocalypse Now, which is really obvious when you see it, but since they both owe credit to the original novel, saying “influence” gets complicated. All three stories are about the journey of man and the inevitability of that journey’s power over a certain kind of person.
Impossibly, Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) is the craziest character of all three stories. If you’ve only seen Apocalypse Now you might take issue with that, and I’d definitely understand. But you really need to see this to believe it. I don’t find it even one percent difficult to believe the stories about the production, because Kinski seems like he’s about to lose it, possibly in real life as well as his character, from start to finish.
We live in a world where Daniel Day-Lewis sets the modern standard for this kind of tightly wound, powder keg performance. The tight shots in There Will Be Blood give you the sense that this man might come through the screen to attack you at any moment. There’s no zombie or alien that could rival the fear of those moments, the unblinking, sweating Daniel Plainview contemplating his next move.
I don’t have a way to prove this, but I’m guessing he’s a big fan of Aguirre, Wrath of God. Klaus Kinski plays the titular Aguirre, a Spanish conquistador who is part of an expedition to find the fabled city of El Dorado. I don’t need to tell you this, but El Dorado does not exist. You know that, because you’re in the future, and this is a pretty dumb idea, but it’s impossible to not think about that over and over as you watch this. From the opening text, you know that these people will not succeed in their goal. That’s a stark difference from most journeys, where someone might experience at least a mixed success.
The film opens with the crew lugging cannons and other equipment over a mountain and through the jungle. It’s a miserable time and it’s clear that these people have been through a lot. The party splits in two, supposedly to go down the river with a small group to see if this is even possible. Aguirre joins the expedition and starts to establish command. He’s manic, to say the least, but he’s a powerful presence that the others get behind. It’s all doomed, because of course it’s all doomed, but Aguirre’s machinations continue even as the odds get smaller.
When you look at the performances that won Best Actor Oscars in the early 70s, they all look like this one. There’s Patton and The Godfather and this is right up there, at least in intensity, if not in craft. Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog supposedly disagreed on how Aguirre should be played, but Herzog won out by screaming at Kinski right before every take and filming after he calmed down, but only slightly. The result is a mixture of fury and discomfort. Aguirre distrusts everyone, hates everyone, and yet, needs everyone. He has to hold this whole thing together, in a way, but he can’t stop shaking and bellowing long enough to do that effectively. Even once you realize where this is going, you can’t stop watching him twitch and agonize. Maybe he can will this into happening, after all?
It’s not a perfect film. I have a sick obsession with reading negative reviews of classics, and most of them for Aguirre, Wrath of God take issue with the performances and the production. Most of the other actors don’t get much to do, so they don’t really develop beyond their reaction to Aguirre’s madness. And it’s certainly true that if you don’t find Kinski’s ravings interesting, there is just about nothing here for you. The budget was small and the result is a sort of “forced realism” with no effects and long, difficult passages where the cast really does go through jungles or through tough river terrain. Maybe that sells the experience to you and maybe it frustrates you. It’s a matter of what you want from a movie like this.
I think it’s all worth it, no matter what, for the performance. I’ve found myself coming back to it just for that, even though the journey isn’t necessarily worth following all the time. The ending is something else, too, and while you can guess about how successful it all is, you certainly can’t guess how it ends. You should power through the scenery for that alone.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It’s probably crazy to compare a Werner Herzog epic to an anime about dream magic like Paprika, but they both do have similarities. Both are “inspirations” to some degree for better known films (Apocalypse Now and Inception) and both are about main characters realizing a truth about themselves (though that’s maybe debatable in Aguirre’s case). I think both movies suffer a little bit with pacing, but Aguirre even more than Paprika, so I’ll give the nod to Paprika.
Is it the best movie of all time? No, I don’t think so. It’s pretty shaggy, even at 94 minutes. It’s worth your time and I really can’t say enough about Klaus Kinski’s truly crazy performance, but nothing else really stands out for me. It’s a great experience as a film but it doesn’t last, so I don’t think it rises to the level it needs to to be “best.”
You can watch Aguirre, Wrath of God for free on Amazon (if you have Prime). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.
I’ve heard the phrase “drunk with power” before, but Kinski’s performance is the first time I’ve seen that power manifest in literal drunken, staggering, stammering behavior.