“Aguirre, the Wrath of God” - Werner Herzog (1972)

Werner Herzog, one of the most versatile and creative film directors, has had a remarkably successful career spanning across a number of genres over more than fifty years.  However, I would say one of his greatest works came relatively early on in his career, with his third fiction feature film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, 1972).  This is a historical drama set in 16th century Peru and concerns the activities of some Spanish conquistadors in search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado [1].  But the film’s subject matter stretches far beyond its overt topic of Spanish conquistadors in South America and extends off into vistas relating to Herzog’s characteristically gloomy view of human existence as a whole.  

You might think that such a film focussed on a pessimistic view of humanity would not attain widespread popularity, but Herzog’s unique cinematic vision led to the fashioning of one of the all-time great films.  Upon its release, ,Aguirre, the Wrath of God quickly acquired cult status, and it is said to have directly influenced subsequent important works, such as Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) and Terrence Malick's The New World (2005).  And over the years, the critical appreciation of the film has only grown [2,3,4,5,6,7].

Actually, the making of Aguirre, the Wrath of God has acquired a somewhat legendary status in its own right [5,6,7].  Herzog took a small film crew to shoot on location in Peru.  But the harsh, life-threatening shooting conditions in the Amazon rainforest and Herzog’s customary extemporaneous shooting style (he often made things up as he went along, which meant that the film had to be shot in narrative sequence) made things almost impossible for the frazzled crew.  In addition, there was the further matter of working with hot-headed lead actor Klaus Kinski, who was characteristically stubborn and maniacally volatile.  Nevertheless, Herzog somehow got a brilliant performance out of Kinski, and in fact this film was the first of five Herzog-Kinski collaborations.  (How Herzog managed to work with the temperamental Kinski over the years is covered in some detail in Herzog’s later documentary film My Best Fiend (1999)).  

Despite these trying and dangerous production conditions, however, the resulting film that Herzog and his team produced was masterful all across the board.  The acting from a diverse collection of actors was excellent, and the cinematography was superb.  Indeed the cinematography fashioned by Herzog and cinematographer Thomas Mauch plays a key thematic role in the film.  Equipped only with a 35mm camera Herzog had stolen from the Munich Film School, they managed to convey the dense imagery of the Amazon rainforest as a symbol of the oppressive and entangling nature of man’s unfeeling natural environment.  Thus Nature, itself, was rendered to be a cruel player/antagonist in this story.  Moreover, because of Herzog’s extemporaneous filming style, skilled post-production work in the editing room on the part of Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus was undoubtedly crucial to the film’s smooth narrative flow.

The story of Aguirre, the Wrath of God is based on a real historical figure, Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre (1510-1561), who was active in Spanish colonialist activities in South America during the 16th century.  However, Herzog massaged various facts and events from that era to come up with his own, more streamlined storyline that has many fictional elements.  In particular in Herzog’s version, several separate historical sequences of events have been combined into a single expedition.  So in this (Herzog’s) story, Aguirre is part of an expedition undertaken by Hernando Pizarro, (one of the famous conquistador Pizarro brothers), who,  after the conquest of the Inca empire, led an expedition of several hundred Spanish soldiers over the Andes mountains in order to go down the Amazon river in search of the fabled city of El Dorado.  But, as I mentioned, Herzog’s refashioned story is not so much one concerned with historical accuracy as it is one constructed instead to evoke Herzog’s grim vision.  In fact the expedition depicted here in Aguirre, the Wrath of God can be considered to be Herzog’s vivid nightmare of a willful descent into Hell.

The narrative of Aguirre, the Wrath of God can be viewed as made up of three unequally lengthed sections.  

1.  Descent into the Maelstrom
In 1560 Gonzalo Pizarro (played by Alejandro Repullés) leads several hundred armored Spanish conquistadors and a similar number of Indigenous slaves down a steep mountain path in the Andes towards the Amazon River.  They have heard that somewhere along that river is their hoped-for destination, the legendary city of El Dorado.  The heavily forested path is so steep and narrow that it seems almost impossible for them to make the journey, themselves, not to  mention transport their cannons and provisions, too.  How Herzog and Thomas Mauch managed to film this harrowing sequence must have been a story in itself.  As the single-file descent, which includes equipment accidents and injuries, proceeds, it almost looks as if Mother Nature is enshrouding her new captives in green leafy burial garments.  

When they reach the river, Pizarro, assessing that their slow progress has left them very low on provisions, decides to have a group of forty men take four constructed rafts and go on an advanced scouting mission down the river.  If they don’t return within a week, they will be presumed lost, and the rest of the party will travel back up over the mountains to their main fortress.  For this scouting mission, Pizarro selects Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) as the commander and Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as second-in-command.   Also assigned are Fernando de Guzmán (Peter Berling) as a royalty representative and Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) to bring religion to the natives.  And accompanying them, surprisingly, will be Ursúa's fiancé, Doña Inés (Helena Rojo) and Aguirre's 15-year-old  daughter, Flores (Cecilia Rivera).

2.  The Ursúa-led Mission
The scouting mission sets off, but one of the four rafts gets stuck in an eddy and is unable to get free.  The others of the group stop and make camp, but they are unable to help their comrades trapped in the whirling eddy.  Then overnight the men on this trapped raft are mysteriously shot and killed. Ursúa wants the dead bodies to be brought back to camp for proper burial, but Aguirre, not wanting to be delayed, conspires to have the raft and bodies destroyed by cannon fire.  Up to now Aguirre’s presence has been relatively minor, but from hereon we see his malevolence coming to the fore.

During the night, the river rises and sweeps away the remaining rafts.  Ursúa has now had enough and orders the end of the scouting mission and that they should all return to Pizarro's group.  But the greedy Aguirre doesn’t accept this and leads a mutiny against Ursúa.  Aguirre gains support among the men for his mutiny by pointing out that Cortes conquered Mexico and achieved wealth and power by staging a mutiny.  When Ursúa tries to thwart the mutiny, he is shot, but not fatally, and Aguirre takes over as the leader.  Inés proceeds to care for the seriously wounded Ursúa.  When she appeals to Brother Carvajal to intercede against Aguirre’s rebellious takeover, he cynically informs her that the Church has always backed the strong.

3.   Aguirre Takes Over
Aguirre has the soldiers elect the indolent Fernando de Guzmán (because the man is a royal ornament) as the new leader of the expedition, and then goes even further and has Guzmán identified as the new imperial emperor.  But of course the swaggering Aguirre is the real man in charge.  In fact the very way that Aguirre swaggers and struts, as performed by Kinski, seems to be an  instrument of control in itself.

Aguirre orders a new, larger raft to be built, and his deranged descent into Hell continues.  With precious food supplies running out as they drift downstream, greed, jealousy, and eventually madness begin to take over.  When their raft is approached peacefully by an inquiring Indigenous couple in a canoe, Brother Carvajal has the visitors killed for allegedly insulting God.  The sight of the portly Guzmán gorging himself on their scant food supplies leads to some of the men to secretly kill their new “emperor”.  To the real man in control, Aguirre, this hardly matters.  He simply declares himself to be the new emperor, and he orders Ursúa, whose life up to this point  had been preserved by Guzmán, taken ashore and hanged.  

But the isolation of he group continues, and their attempts to engage with the Indigenous people gets nowhere.  Apart from that one friendly but ill-fated approach by the native couple in a canoe, these people are basically invisible to the invading conquistadors.  But their presence is felt by occasional salvos of lethal arrows that are frequently directed at them from behind bushes and trees.  Gradually, Aguirre’s people are getting picked off one-by-one by an invisible mortal force.

And as crazed desperation sets in, the starving men begin to wonder what is a hallucination and what is real.  Are these silent deadly arrows appearing suddenly from out of nowhere real, or are they imaginary?  At one point they all stare in amazement at a large wooden ship perched in the highest branches of a tall tree.  (To many viewers, this weird image will seem to be an eery foreshadowing of the later Herzog-Kinski movie Fitzcarraldo (1982)).

Eventually everyone besides Aguirre on the slowly drifting raft is dead, even Aguirre’s teenage daughter, Flores, towards whom he had incestuous urges and whom he wanted to make his queen.  The movie ends with the crazed figure Aguirre continuing to rant and rave his mad dreams of power, with the only ones available to hear being a band of monkeys who have boarded the raft.


These closing images of self-destructive greed and madness are so powerful that they linger in the minds of many viewers long after seeing the film.  In fact it is the visual images, rather than dialogues, that are the cinematic keys to Herzog’s greatness.  As mentioned, Herzog tends to make up the spoken words on the fly during the shooting of his films.  The focus of his narrative imagination is the stream of visuals that he has in his mind.  Even principal actor Klaus Kinski, in the role of Aguirre, doesn’t have that many lines to speak in the film.  The key to Kinski’s performance is his physical posturing throughout the film.  Kinski is constantly shown leaning at an angle, but not usually holding onto anything for support.  This leaning posture is suggestive of someone engaged in momentary pondering just prior to some firm, impending negative action.  Thus Aguirre’s visual imagery suggests a man always on the verge of something emphatically contrary.  And that threatening imagery is what we remember about him.

So what is Herzog’s message in Aguirre, the Wrath of God?  I would say it is based on two relatively somber themes that have long underlain his work:
  • His concern that so much of European (i.e. Western) civilization has been based on greed and selfish utilitarianism.  This egoistic focus has fuelled exploitative Western imperialism and colonialism across the globe and continues to this day.  It was this that drove Aguirre’s desire to go to any lengths to find and plunder the legendary city of El Dorado.
     
  • His glum recognition that the natural world, i.e. “Nature”, is devoid of the human values of beauty and harmony that we sometimes attribute to it.
In support of my assertions here, I offer the following quotations from some of my reviews of other Herzog films.
  • From Lessons of Darkness (1992) [8]:
     
    “The demonic forces that lurk inside the hearts of men seem to be beyond civilized understanding or rational control.  These issues of cruelty and madness are as elemental as fire, itself . . .“
     
  • From Heart of Glass (1976) [9]:
       
    Man’s efforts to understand the universe and build a humane civilization are doomed to failure in the face of his own depravity and the incomprehensibly vastness of great Nature. The universe is infinite and brutal, unmindful and unaffected by our puny efforts to find truth and beauty. Our so-called civilisation has tried to tame nature, but it is based on reductionist mechanism and increasingly drives us further away from any chance of harmony within it. “
     
  • And from Herzog, himself, (from my review of Into the Inferno (2016) [10]):

    “I don’t see [the jungle] so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. It’s just – Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course, there’s a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain.” [11]
       
    and
     
    “There is a harmony [in nature] . . . it is a harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.” [12]
So I would say that Herzog’s two rather pessimistic notions have been present throughout his work.  And in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, both of these sentiments are on full display and symbolically facing each other – Aguirre, the self-centered and exploitative European, is fighting a losing battle with an even more unfeeling and exploitative force: Nature, itself.  Indeed these two notions have probably been no more vividly and aesthetically expressed than here in Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. “El Dorado”, Wikipedia, (27 August 2021).  
  2. Peter Bradshaw, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”, The Guardian, (17 August 2001).   
  3. Peter Bradshaw, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God - review”, The Guardian, (6 June 2013).    
  4. Fernando F. Croce, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog / West Germany, 1972): (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes)”, Cinepassion.org, (n.d.).   
  5. Jeffrey M. Anderson, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Herzog's Mad Journey”, Combustible Celluloid, (1999?).   
  6. Bruce Bennett, “An Infamous Mutiny, A Descent Into Madness”, The New York Sun, (20 October 2006).   
  7. Roger Ebert, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”, RogerEbert.com, (4 April 1999)..   
  8. The Film Sufi, “‘Lessons of Darkness’ - Werner Herzog (1992)”, The Film Sufi, (30 May 2010).   
  9. The Film Sufi, “‘Heart of Glass’ - Werner Herzog (1976)”, The Film Sufi, (6 September 2008).   
  10. The Film Sufi, “‘Into the Inferno’ - Werner Herzog (2016)”, The Film Sufi, (11 November 2019).   
  11. Werner Herzog, “24 Wonderfully Bonkers Werner Herzog Quotes”, (Compiled by Nico Lang), Thought Catalog, (24 April 2013).   
  12. from Les Blank’s film, Burden of Dreams (1982), which is about the shooting of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982).

1 comment:

arjun said...

the wrath of god amazing movie and the info u shared is really informative thanks for sharing it
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