Aguirre, Wrath Of God (1972) directed by Werner Herzog
What’s it about?
Aguirre, Wrath Of God is set in The Americas during the 16th century. It is loosely based on the exploits of the real-life conquistador Lope de Aguirre.
After conquering the land of the Incas, a Spanish colonial expedition descends the Andes towards the Amazon, in search of the fabled land of Eldorado, a place reputed to hold untold riches. Since the large group is struggling to make headway, the leader Gonzalo Pizarro appoints Don Pedro De Ursua (Ruy Guerra) to head a smaller scouting expedition by raft down the Amazon to search for both food and signs of the existence of Eldorado. His second in command is the hunchbacked Don Lope De Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), a man ruthless to everyone bar his beloved daughter Flores (Cecilia Rivera).
Things start to go wrong for the group, with one of the rafts trapped by the tide, and then its crew killed overnight, seemingly in a fierce battle with the natives. It also becomes increasingly apparent that Aguirre is acting unilaterally from Ursua, and this comes to a head when the latter decides that the mission is proving to be a fruitless waste of lives, and wants to turn back. Aguirre, consumed with the ambition to discover the next Mexico, stages a mutiny and shoots Ursua (who doesn’t die but remains a prisoner), and decides to carry on with a nobleman named Don Fernando De Guzman (Peter Berling) officially put in place as a puppet emperor.
The journey continues down the Amazon as more and more goes awry, and the deaths mount.
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Why is it significant?
As with many of Werner Herzog’s films, Aguirre, Wrath Of God is as fascinating (if not more so) for the way in which it was made as for what is up on the screen. Whereas most directors emphasise an almost obsessive level of control and planning over their project, Herzog just lets things happen, taking situations that would cause most filmmakers to run scared and, well, just running with them and using them, in effect, to build up the story as it goes along.
Apparently Herzog wrote the original script on a long bus journey, part of which was lost after a drunken friend vomited on it. A number of scenes in the film were improvised on the spot. The crew was tiny in comparison to the cast (a crew of 8 with a cast of hundreds). The film was shot around the Amazon river in a very remote area of the Peruvian rainforest. As with the historical characters that the film follows, the crew themselves spent their days and nights living and working on rafts.
Most of all, the relationship between director Herzog and egomaniacal star Klaus Kinski was volatile to the point where the latter walked off the set - then the director threatened him to come back by pointing a gun at him. Their love/hate relationship would, believe it or not, continue through 4 more films: Woyzeck (1978), the remake of Nosferatu (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Cobra Verde (1987).
Not that Kinski’s behaviour on set was any less extreme than Herzog’s. He reportedly shot a rifle at cast and crew members one night, resulting in one hapless extra losing the tip of their finger. His tendencies to fly into a rage on set were such that Herzog would repeatedly wind him up until he was worn out in order to get a more subdued performance out of him when required for certain scenes. Reportedly, the real-life Lope de Aguirre was as crazed as his on-screen representation is here, thus making Kinski ideal casting.
The film is widely considered to be one of Herzog’s finest works and has been cited as a major influence on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).
How does it hold up?
The chaotic, desperate, do-or-die nature of the film’s production is reflected perfectly in what is up on screen - the adverse circumstances the colonial expedition faces are often related to the real adversity the filmmakers faced. So, the result feels very naturalistic. The camera is placed right there on the rickety wooden raft, with the splashing water leaving spots on the lens and the faces of the actors nervously surveying the trees on the horizon. Situations seem surreal, but only because, unlike a meticulously planned script, they capture the haphazard nature of reality. They are so divorced from the normal course of a film that they come like a continuous stream of bolts out of the blue.
There are many memorable images in Aguirre, The Wrath Of God: the title character presenting a sleeping sloth to his daughter; a woman walking blank-faced into the jungle in despair, never to be seen again; Emperor Guzman gorging on fish and fruit while the others are reduced to counting grains for their own rations; an Inca piper playing a tune to boost the flagging morale of the men (but to conspicuously little effect); a decapitation climaxing in the severed head uttering one final word. Oh, and monkeys. Lots of tiny monkeys.
Kinski is a large part of the show, throwing his weight around, raging at extras and animals alike on the raft, and staring intently into the distance as he schemes toward his goal. He is the navigator on a journey towards what he sees as wealth and power but amounts to little more than delusion and, ultimately, insanity and death. Of course Kinski is, in many ways, just being himself as captured by Herzog. Like the real colonials, he is the epitome of sheer human determination and arrogance personified.
The soundtrack by Popol Vuh also merits a mention: it may introduce synths into the 16th century, yet remains entirely evocative and unobtrusive. It’s a perfectly atmospheric accompaniment to a chaotically masterful film.
Runtime: 95 mins
Dir: Werner Herzog
Script: Werner Herzog
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Ruy Guerra, Helena Rojo, Del Negro, Peter Berling, Cecilia Rivera