Faced with difficult conditions, an expedition in search of the (mythical) city of El Dorado under Gonzalo Pizarro in 1560 sends an advanced party down the Amazon on rafts. A power struggle quickly develops between the leader of this group, Ursua, and his second-in-command, Aguirre. Describing himself as ‘the wrath of God’ and employing a series of increasingly brutal strategies, Aguirre, usurps authority and leads the small band on towards total destruction.
Why does Aguirre suggest he should be seen as ‘the wrath of God’ (and why does Herzog choose this as the title for his film)? Is it that Aguirre is an agent of God, bringing the anger of an Old Testament God down on his avaricious people? Is it that, more than an agent, he actually is a god on earth, not a Christ-like persuasive god but a violent god who enforces his will? (‘The earth I walk upon sees me and quakes,’ he claims.) Certainly, Aguirre destroys without mercy those who oppose him and commands obedience through fear. But, he comes to this position during the course of the film; we see him journeying towards this vision of himself.
For a character commonly seen as mad he is actually more reasoned in his approach than anyone else in the expedition. From the outset because he is not driven by either religious fervour or financial greed he knows the score: ‘No-one can get down that river alive’. From the beginning he is marked out by Herzog as different to the other leaders of the expedition: in two-shots there is always a distance between him and either Ursua or Pizarro; when they look towards him he looks away; when they look off into the distance and make some grand statement he scrutinises them with a piercing stare; when they gather the men and make a speech we cut to Aguirre who is somewhere else both physically and mentally. He knows, and states within the first few minutes of the film, that ‘We’re all going to go under’. Later, after he has effectively become leader of the group, he has the priest, Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, read a statement of their position in which he says, ‘We have decided to put an end to the quirks of fate’. His decision it seems is to embrace destiny, to throw himself headlong into his fate in such a way that he is no longer at the mercy of fate; to become the wrath of God in order that he should no longer be at the mercy of that terrible anger. As a god he ‘despises’ mere mortals. ‘My men measure riches in gold’, he says. ‘It is more. It is power and fame. I despise them for it.’ For him (maybe) his journey, that from an apparently rational standpoint would seem to have been a descent ever further into delusion and madness, has been a success, a statement of the capability of man to attain transcendence, because for him it has never been about gold but instead has always been about leaving your mark on history.1
On the one hand, of course, as we view the film Aguirre remains a madman whose delusion defies reason and becomes all the more outrageous as the inevitability of the doom that will engulf the group becomes ever more obvious. On the other hand, he is the ultimate rebel against authority, refusing to accept the power of the leader of the small advanced party, Don Pedro de Ursua, or of the leader of the expedition, Pizarro, or, even, of the Spanish king, Philip II. As a rebel he is Promethean, even Satanic, a bringer of fire and an embodiment of evil, with echoes of Friedrich Nietzsche’s (or a Nazi version of Nietzsche’s) Übermensch, or superman. For Nietzsche the most basic human drive was the will to power embodied most spectacularly in individuals who transcended common social norms. Aguirre, in this sense, is the tragic hero who succeeds in creating meaning out of the meaninglessness of existence. He is not without rationality (‘What is a throne but a plank of wood covered with velvet?’) or gentleness (see him with his daughter, Flores2), but as Übermensch he exerts power over nobody so strongly as over himself.
Aguirre sees himself as the very essence of treachery: ‘I am the great traitor. There can be no greater!’ Ironically, although he calls himself the wrath of God, by those who believe absolutely in the established order of mid-sixteenth-century Christian society such as Ursua he would be viewed as Satan-like in his rebellion against God’s order. In refusing to accept the authority of the King of Spain he is, in terms of the dominant beliefs of the age, rebelling against God’s authority on earth; that is, he is in open revolt against the person who ‘truly’ is God’s agent on earth.
And, the levels of irony, paradox and complexity need to be extended still further. Although there was an actual historical figure called Don Lope de Aguirre who was a conquistador and did seize control of an expedition down the Amazon and did renounce allegiance to the Spanish throne, despite the grandeur of his gesture, the audacity of his rebellion and the scope of his manic vision, this Aguirre was still lost in the mists of the past until Herzog decided to make a film about him.3 However big your efforts might be to make your mark, to forge a portion of history in your own image, time and the passage of time will reduce your attempts to nothing. Until that is, perhaps, somebody else with the drive to create meaning out of the meaninglessness of existence comes along and brings about your resurrection.
The film was shot on location in the jungles of Peru with a cast and crew of 500 working in difficult conditions that might be gauged by the shots of a river in spate that are shown in some scenes. The drive and determination of Herzog (and Kinski4 ) that might be described as manic, succeed in bringing the vision into being. In working in dangerous, isolated regions, rejecting not only the studio but also exotic but safe locations, Herzog turns the process itself of filming into a physically dangerous journey/quest/search. According to him, ‘Put under extreme pressure, people give you many more insights into their innermost being and tell us about who we really are’. 5
Visually, we are given a beautiful and haunting film. The opening sequence, for example, shows in extreme long shot what appears to be simply the imposing grandeur of a mountain scene. Slowly we become aware of the heavily burdened expedition snaking its way step-by-step down the side of this vast mountain. Man is immediately positioned as minute, ant-like against the vast scale of the natural world. And then, when we move in closer, the handheld camera brings out the full clumsiness of human movement. Maybe from a distance the rivulet flow of a train of people down this majestic mountain has its own beauty, but move closer and the reality of the use and abuse of slaves, for example, becomes unavoidable. At several points the long-handled, double-axe-bladed pike being carried by a soldier sways above the people like a cross; at other moments iron chains on the Indian porters clank heavily across the screen. With a depth of symbolism again reaching into the religious context and the social order, one native porter is shown carrying a massive cannon wheel on his back. And finally, the insanity of it all becomes apparent as we realise there are also two sedan chairs making their precarious passage down this Andean mountainside.
The film may be based on the journal of the real Gaspar de Carvajal, who accompanied an expedition to Peru under Gonzalo Pizarro (half-brother of the brutal Francisco Pizarro who conquered the Incas), but it is a fiction conflating the story of the historical Aguirre with de Carvajal’s account of a different expedition. The search for a legendary city and the gold it supposedly contains provides a classic scenario for the quest structure found at the heart of so many narratives. In these tales, while the supposed ‘El Dorado’ proves to be illusory the journey itself is full of significance in what it suggests about the nature of the human experience.
In one sense, the whole history of expansionist, imperialist Germany, as well as Spain, is embodied in this journey. More precisely, it is possible to read the film as an allegory of what happened to Germany under Hitler and fascism. Like Hitler, Aguirre announces at one point, ‘I don’t turn back’, and the way in which he is increasingly isolated at the end might at some level recall Hitler’s last days. Certainly, for the post-war generation of Germans in the early 1970s, dealing with the legacy of the Second World War, the comparisons would have been apparent. But, Aguirre also consciously identifies himself with other conquerors from the past such as Cortes. The whole history of European ‘civilisation’ might be seen to be embodied in this journey. As we move out and away from ‘civilisation’, it is not only the nature of the ‘primitive’ that comes into view but also the essence of ‘civilisation’. There is man’s determination to conquer (not only others but also the natural world), man’s belief in his own godlike strength, the greed of man, the ambition of man, the brutality of man, the treachery of man and, ultimately, the utter madness of man. There is death, disease, murder, execution and the destruction of families. There are also men stranded, trapped, irresistibly carried forward in a direction not necessarily of their choosing, and going round in circles.
In the end, to read this film on any single level is to fail to appreciate the depth of the examination of the human condition that is being undertaken. This is an investigation into the heart of man. The physical journey may be downriver towards the sea but the psychological journey mirrors Marlow’s upriver in the novella, The Heart of Darkness, and Willard’s (Martin Sheen) in the film Apocalypse Now. 6 Marlow and Willard are narrators who take us on a journey towards a meeting with a character (called Kurtz in both the novella and the film) who has driven himself on into megalomania, but here we follow the Kurtz-like character, Aguirre, more directly. Still, there is a narrator, Brother Gaspar, who is in many ways the classic model of an unreliable narrator. Like Aguirre, Gaspar sees himself as an agent of God on earth but also perhaps as something of a god in himself. His opening words tell us that on Christmas Day 1560 he read Mass and then ‘we descended through the clouds’. Faced by a native who fails to understand the concept of the word of God being contained in a book, Gaspar’s response is to run him through with his sword and note in his journal that, ‘These savages are hard to convert’. He brings with him, it seems, not the love of God but the wrath of God; and when Aguirre takes control, Gaspar makes clear that the historical position of the Church ‘was always on the side of the strong’.
1. See Gregory A. Waller, ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God: History, Theater, and the Camera’, South Atlantic Review, Vol. 46, No. 2, May 1981, pp. 55–69.
2. At one point he offers Flores a slow loris he has found. The short scene seems odd, and unrelated to the narrative, unless we reflect on how he describes this creature to his daughter: ‘This animal sleeps its whole life away. It is never really awake’.
3. In relation to Aguirre and the nature of history and truth, and the creation of narratives of the past, see Luisela Alvaray, ‘Filming the Discovery of America: How and Whose History is Being Told’, Film-Historia, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1995, pp. 35–44.
4. Gilberto Perez (‘Film in Review: Bad Boys – Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog’, The Yale Review, Vol. 88, Issue 2, April 2000, pp. 185– 94) sees the director and the actor as ‘two versions of the same madness, barely under control’ (p. 193).
5. Werner Herzog and Paul Cronin, Herzog on Herzog, London, Macmillan, 2002, p. 19.
6. See Beate West-Leuer, ‘Film Essay Colonial Aggression and Collective Aggressor Trauma’, The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 90, Issue 5, Oct 2009, pp. 1157–68.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: West Germany. Production Company: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion. Director and screenwriter: Werner Herzog. Cinematographer: Thomas Mauch. Music: Popol Vuh. Cast: Klaus Kinski (Don Lope de Aguirre), Ruy Guerra (Don Pedro de Ursua), Del Negro (Brother Gaspar de Carvajal), Helena Rojo (Inez), Cecilia Rivera (Flores), Peter Berling (Don Fernando de Guzman), Daniel Ades (Perucho), Armando Polanah (Armando), Edward Roland (Okello).]
Cynthia L. Stone, ‘Aguirre Goes to the Movies: Twentieth-Century Visions of Colonial-Era “Relaciones”’, Chasqui: revista de literatura latinoamericana, Vol. 34, No. 2, 2005, pp. 24–35.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.