AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes)

(director/writer: Werner Herzog; cinematographer: Thomas Mauch; editor: Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus; music: Popol Vuh; cast: Klaus Kinski (Don Lope de Aguirre), Helena Rojo (Inez), Del Negro (Brother Gaspar de Carvajal), Ruy Guerra (Don Pedro de Ursua), Peter Berling (Don Fernando de Guzman), Alejandro Repulles (Gonzalo Pizarro), Cecilia Rivera (Flores), Edward Roland (Okello), Dan Ades (Perucho), Armando Polanah (Armando), Gerd Martienzen (Voice of Don Lope de Aguirre); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Werner Herzog; New Yorker Films; 1972-West Germany-in German with English subtitles)


“Takes us into a visually stunning and surreal Heart of Darkness adventure.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Independent West German writer-director Werner Herzog’s (“The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser”/”Heart of Glass”/”Even Dwarfs Started Small”) most intense and powerful film takes us into a visually stunning and surreal Heart of Darkness adventure. It was filmed on location in Peru and is based on the journals of Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (whose credibility can certainly be challenged). The story resurrects the 16th-century megalomaniac dream of the conquistadors of Spain and their journey down a jungle river in Peru as they seek to find El Dorado: a mythical city of gold. It plays as a brutally odd footnote to the history of the Spanish conquests, as it follows with accuracy the historical events as recorded.

The book from Herzog on Herzog as edited by Paul Cronin offers this comment from the filmmaker: “Most of the script was written on a bus going to Vienna with the football team I used to play for. We were a few hours into the trip and everyone was drunk already because we had some beer barrels to give to our opponents, but my team had drunk half of it before we had even arrived. I was sitting in my seat with my typewriter on my lap. Our goalie was leaning over me and was so drunk that he finally vomited over my typewriter. Some of the pages were beyond repair and I had to throw them out the window. There were some fine scenes, but they are long gone. That is life on the road for you.” I guess from such humble beginnings, inspiration, madness and genius can only be around the next bend.

It opens in December 1560 (its timeframe will run through to February 1561) in the heart of the Amazon jungle with a magnificent shot of the ant-like conquistadors descending a steep narrow path in the Andes. The expedition is led by Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles) who has come to find El Dorado for Spain and bring Christianity to the natives. He has brought with him canons, caged chickens, Indians as slave porters and all the arrogance of his civilized world, as anyone not a Christian is looked down upon as a worthless heathen. Because of the rough terrain and need for food, Pizarro dispatches a group of about forty soldiers and slaves to go in several rafts for one week and bring back food and any word of El Dorado. If they do not return by that time, they will be considered lost and Pizarro will move on with the main expedition force. Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) is asked to lead this expedition, with Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as second in command. Ursua brings his loyal wife Inez (Helena Rojo), while Aguirre brings his Madonna-like blonde daughter. Also in leadership roles will be Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro), representing the interests of the church, and representing the interests of royalty will be the portly Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling). Misfortune soon follows as one raft is lost and Aguirre sabotages Ursua’s authority by giving countermanding orders. When Ursua orders the expedition to march back and join Pizarro, Aguirre rebels and tells the men that Cortez disobeyed his commander in Mexico and went on to conquer the country. Those soldiers loyal to Aguirre take Ursua prisoner and threaten execution to all who disobey them, and proceed down river looking for riches and trying to avoid the deadly arrows from the unseen Indians. To make things legal, the mutineers promote the indolent Guzman to be emperor of the territory and the delusional strongman Aguirre as his second in command. Guzman is ironically dressed in rags and is repeatedly shown to be the Emperor of Nothing

Kinski’s acting is one of showing a great presence without much talking (he falls in love with the camera), reflecting evil in just the way he slumps down and struts when walking aboard the raft. He characterizes an ego-maniacal lunatic obsessed with wealth, power and fame, who plans on marrying his daughter and starting a new dynasty in these unexplored territories. It’s a once in a lifetime role that Kinski inhabits with a sense of hypnotic primeval instincts. As the story goes, we are told Herzog at one point put a gun to his head to make the reluctant actor do one scene. Whatever…the results were stupendous, and the two must have ironed out their differences from their first of five future collaborations (the other films include: Woyzeck, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde). But none has reached the heights of Aguirre.

Herzog’s brilliant visionary film debunks the altruistic aims of the conquistadors as shams, as he shows without doubt their real intentions are based on greed, narcissism and empire building. The gutsy filmmaker does it in a manner that is not likely to be forgotten.

Lively background music is provided by German rockers Popol Vuh, named after the Mayan creation myth.

Just as the opening scene is legendary, so is the closing one. It has the madman Aguirre, already a doomed man, standing like a victor alone on a raft overrun with monkeys and still ‘talking the talk’ of a hateful dreamer.

Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972)