William R. Katovsky:


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We all have one film we keep returning to. It's usually a movie that involves a character whose on-screen persona mirrors the struggle we sense in ourselves. It's a conflict that won't go away. As moviegoers, we seek an external validation, to be wedded to a character's destiny that we can also call our own. Perhaps that is why I have read Moby Dick four times; during each reading I relive Captain Ahab's obsessive quest for the elusive white whale.
I have seen Werner Herzog's Aguirre, The Wrath of God five times. I don't ever recall viewing any other movie more than twice.
Aguirre is the bizarre saga of a deranged conquistador's search for the lost city of gold in the hidden reaches of the Amazon basin.
The German actor Klaus Kinski plays Aguirre, whose tyrannical control over his party of explorers is so complete that they have no recourse but to follow him on his crazed quest, even as they are being killed off by the unseen Indians. Here's film critic Pauline Kael on Kinski's acting: "...wearing a metal helmet that seemed to be soldered to his skull, [he] had so little to do that he kept acting up a grotesque storm. Aguirre's glassy blue eyes didn't blink; they seemed to have popped open and stayed that way. He was like an angry, domineering Bette Davis; he held his mouth like a dowager, pursing his lips and scowling, and he took command of a group of soldiers by the demonic force of his glare. Kinski's Aguirre was a crazed conquistador who always walked at a tilt, and when he stood still he was slanted backward or, occasionally, sideways. He achieved the effect of the angled sets in Caligari just with his own body, which told us how off-balance his mind was." It is said of great actors - and Kinski was considered one of Europe's greatest - that there is one role that awaits them. Though Charlton Heston was certainly not a great actor, he was destined to play Moses in The Ten Commandments. For the Polish-born Kinski, who launched his career right after WWII, performing Ibsen and Shakespeare monologues in cabarets, Aguirre was the role of a lifetime. This twisted and embattled Zarathustra was the cinematic embodiment of someone who resided in an otherworldly dimension - both timeless and placeless. As Kinski was fond of saying, "I am like a wild animal born in captivity, in a zoo. But where a beast would have claws, I was born with talent."
When I first saw Aguirre in 1977, I left the theatre haunted. Kinski's intense gaze, set off by his high forehead and angular Aryan features, held me in its grip. His penetrating blue eyes seemed to offer a private passageway into a hellish inferno. Why, this was the maddest and greatest actor of them all, a demented Teutonic version of Dennis Hopper with Robert De Niro thrown in for added existential torque. Kinski was the lunatic lodestar before whom all American actors paled in comparison.
Perhaps his Slavic brand of intensity was too red-hot for American audiences to fully appreciate - notwithstanding starring roles in movies like Woyzeck, Nosferatu, and Fitzcarraldo, where he played totaIly unhinged characters. In this country, he's known for fathering Avedon serpentine pinup Nastassja. In France, Germany, and Italy, he was treated as silver screen royalty and he spent years living in sumptuous comfort, with a fleet of Ferraris, seven palazzos in Rome - the kind of caviar lifestyle the fawning Robin Leach exploited for tabloid TV viewers.

© 1992 by William R. Katovsky and Frisko Magazine

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