Every once in a while Werner Herzog decides to film in a manner that doesn’t just create an other worldly experience for the viewer, but also one for the cast and crew making the picture. In doing so, he tries to have you walk in the shoes of the characters by having the cast and crew walk in their shoes too. He doesn’t do this very often, for obvious reasons, and though these are usually highly criticized during their making they are also invariably his best works. In Little Dieter Needs to Fly, he took a POW escapee back to the jungles of Cambodia from whence he escaped to have him walk Herzog through just what happened. Fitzcarraldo tells the story of a man who decided to pull a boat over a mountain to continue his river journey; thus, Herzog had them travel the same river and actually pull the boat over the mountain.
Well, Aguirre tells the story of Lobe de Aguirre, a man who, while on a trip down a wild Peruvian river as part of a Spanish mission to find the golden city of El Dorado, mutinied and established a new empire free from Spain. Problem is, the empire is confined to a large raft floating down the river. In other words, Aguirre was totally nuts. The story is good and Klaus Kinski’s performance as Aguirre is one of the best in film history, but what makes this movie truly worth watching is the experience of the film as a whole.
Herzog shot it in order and claims he only did one second take in the entire movie (which involved a horse kicking a fire and it’s hilariously obvious that they spliced in a second take). In other words, they filmed the performance as it occurred and for good reason, they often had no choice to go back and do it again. Why, you ask?
Because they were literally filming it on a giant raft floating down a wild Peruvian river. The part at the beginning that isn’t on the river was on steep cliff edges 14,000 feet up in the Andean rainforest. It was so dangerous and slick that the only way to film it and get back down in time before anyone died was to have the 400-person cast and crew all get in costume and for Herzog to simply perch himself and film them as they made their way down the mountain, as though it was the procession of the characters in the movie. There are unscripted moments of animals and objects falling to their demise as people walked by. Many people became violently ill from nerves and altitude sickness. Then, they all get on rafts for weeks, only stopping for sleep in tents on the side of the river.
Man, what an experience this production must have been. Herzog claims many of the local tribesmen hired on the film would come to him and ask to kill Kinski. Kinski himself got so angry at one point that he wondered off into the jungle, only for Herzog to find him and threaten to kill himself it Kinski didn’t come back and finish.
The product of all this madness is a truly one-of-a-kind film.
It’s not all good, though. Since it was the early 70’s and since much of the cast weren’t actors, the acting among the supporting cast can be pretty weak. Perhaps the biggest negative of the viewing experience is the dubbing. The film was shot in English, but when Herzog got back he found that almost none of it was audible due to the river. He didn’t have enough money to hire the actors to come to Germany to do voiceover either. He had such a blow out fight with Kinski during post-production that Kinski refused to record his part either, though he lived in Germany near Herzog. On top of this, word had spread, very negatively, around about the production and he was finding no one reputable either to do the voice acting or the recording. In the end, Herzog had to find pretty second-rate actors and post people to work with and the product is a very badly dubbed and poorly acted voice track. It’s pretty stark, when the production and visual acting is so fantastic.
Either way, everyone should see this movie, and maybe watch My Best Fiend as a chaser.