Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)

Director: Werner Herzog

Writer: Werner Herzog

Producer: Werner Herzog

Photography: Thomas Mauch

Music: Popol Vuh

Cast: Klaus Kinski, Daniel Ades, Peter Berling, Daniel Farfan, Justo Gonzalez, Ruy Guerra, Julio E. Martinez, Del Negro, Armando Polanah, Alejandro Repulles, Cecilia Rivera, Helena Rojo, Edward Roland

There may be no more fascinating personality in the history of movies than Werner Herzog. To watch an interview with him is to tilt your head to the side and grin in complete amusement. I am constantly amazed by the stuff he says and the stories he tells – shooting on a  35mm film camera he stole from his film school; directing actors at gunpoint behind the camera; hauling an actual ship up a mountainside because it looks more realistic than special effects; and getting shot at during an interview, only to continue the interview as if nothing happened.

For all of this, Herzog the personality may overshadow Herzog the filmmaker, but his body of work stands with the best of ‘em. Be it narratives like Woyzeck (1979) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) or documentaries like Grizzly Man (2005) and Encounters at the End of the World (2007), Herzog has proven one of history’s most prolific filmmakers with a career now in its sixth decade since founding his own production company in 1963. If you had to pick out one of his films as his most powerful, his most accomplished, his most important, it has to be Aguirre: The Wrath of God, his first international success and a landmark of the New German Cinema.

The film is loosely based off Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro’s 1560 expedition across Peru, conquering the Inca Empire while following the Amazon River in search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado. It begins with Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles) appointing two leaders, Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra), who travels with his mistress Inez (Helena Rojo), and the power-hungry second-in-command, Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), who travels with his daughter Flores (Cecilia Rivera). It isn’t long before Aguirre leads a rebellion against Ursua, appealing to the hubris of his fellow conquistadors:

“Do you remember Hernando Cortez? Bound for Mexico, he was ordered to return, but he just went on! He ignored the orders and conquered Mexico! That’s how he became rich and famous. Because he disobeyed.”

As the group travels further and further down the river by raft, we realize their mission is doomed, that the search for El Dorado is nothing more than a wild goose chase, and all that awaits them is a fate of hallucination, misery and death.

The script follows many of the same themes as Joseph Conrad’s 1902 bestseller Heart of Darkness, about a group of European colonizers growing mad on the Congo River. In Aguirre, the river similarly serves as a metaphor for their plunge into madness, made all the more disturbing by the Indian people they keep in chains and the crusader’s mentality that has them kill the native Peruvians if they are unable to convert them to Christianity (most shocking is a scene where the conquistadors hand a Bible to one of the natives, who lifts the book to his ear in an attempt to hear the Word of God, only to be killed for blasphemy).

Herzog supposedly wrote the script “in a frenzy” over two and a half days, mostly during a 200-mile bus trip with his soccer team. Legend has it that his teammates got drunk while celebrating a win and one of them barfed on several pages of Herzog’s manuscript, which he tossed out the window. He says he can’t remember what he wrote on those pages. (B)

The wild “making of” story does not stop there. The project was ripe with complications – Herzog had no storyboards; the crew had just eight members; most of the film was shot unrehearsed; and the entire thing was shot on-location in the challenging Amazon terrain. Still, none of this compared to Herzog’s tumultuous relationship with his lead actor, Kinski.

The two first met when Kinski – then a struggling actor — rented a room in Herzog’s family apartment. Herzog says he was shocked by Kinski’s wild behavior, so when he wrote the script for Aguirre, he thought Kinski was the only one who could play the mad title character. He sent him the script and his phone rang in the early morning hours with Kinski yelling wildly about how much he loved the script. (D) It was merely an indicator of things to come.

From the beginning of the production, Herzog and Kinski argued about how best to portray Aguirre. Herzog wanted a more subtle performance, while Kinski wanted to be outlandish and over the top. As a result, Herzog tried a most interesting strategy – piss Kinski off, let him throw a tantrum, let the anger “burn itself out,” then roll the camera. (C) At one point, Kinski even threatened to walk off the film, to which Herzog allegedly pulled out a gun and threatened to shoot the actor and then turn the gun on himself. Needless to say, they finished the movie.

As a result, Kinski famously bashed Herzog in his biography. “He doesn’t care about anyone or anything except his wretched career as a so-called film-maker,” Kinski wrote. “Driven by a pathological addiction to sensationalism, he creates the most senseless difficulties and dangers, risking other people’s safety and even their lives – just so he can eventually say that he, Herzog, has beaten seemingly unbeatable odds.” (D)

Even so, the relationship must have been love-hate. The two worked together a total of five times. Perhaps each knew that, despite the turmoil, they both brought out the best work in each other. You can almost sense a masochistic sense of pride when Herzog talks about his most famous lead: “Every gray hair on my head I call Kinski.” (E)

Reinforcing the madness is the film’s powerful visuals and haunting score. Shot entirely on location in a rainforest in Peru over a period of five weeks, Herzog beautifully captures the lush Amazonian jungles. Fittingly, cinematographer Thomas Mauch was honored at both the German Film Awards and the National Society of Film Critics Awards.

The film’s hallucinatory score was performed by German progressive/Krautrock band Popol Vuh, and as Roger Ebert writes: “The music sets the tone. It is haunting, ecclesiastical, human and yet something else. … The music is crucial to Aguirre, the Wrath of God.”

When combined with such images as a dense fog – as Herzog shows in the film’s powerful opening image – the music becomes a hallucinatory drug the way The Doors were for Apocalypse Now. In fact, Francis Ford Coppola said he owed much of Apocalypse to Herzog: “Aguirre, with its incredible imagery, was a very strong influence. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.” (A) Coppola’s not the only one — you can easily see the influence on Terrence Malick in both The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005).

What more is there to say about Aguirre except that it ranked on Rolling Stone’s 100 Maverick Movies, Time’s Top 100, #19 on Empire’s 100 Greatest Films of World Cinema, #43 on the Village Voice Top 100, and #46 on Entertainment Weekly’s Top 50 Cult Films of All-Time? Perhaps most impressively, Roger Ebert voted it #1 on his ballot for the 2002 Sight & Sound critics poll, one spot ahead of Apocalypse Now. Critics everywhere recognize Aguirre for what it is – more than just a story with a plot. Rather, it feels like a dangerous documentary, our own window it what it must have been like to risk our lives drifting toward insanity down the Amazon.

CITE A: Peary, Gerald. “Francis Ford Coppola, Interview with Gerald Peary”. Retrieved 2007-03-14.
CITE B: Herzog, Werner. Aguirre, the Wrath of God DVD, Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2001, audio commentary. OCLC 228418112
CITE C: Knipfel, Jim. Aguirre, the Wrath of God DVD, Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2001.
CITE D: O’Mahony, John (March 30, 2002).  HYPERLINK “,,676082,00.html” “The Enigma of Werner H”. The Guardian (London).  HYPERLINK “,,676082,00.html”,,676082,00.html.
CITE E: Empire’s 100 Best Films of World Cinema.

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