Aguirre, Wrath of God

West Germany 1972, 94 mins
Director: Werner Herzog

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

All Werner Herzog’s fictions evince a fascination with the mechanisms of human madness – especially those engendered by the will to power – and yet the uniquely disturbing quality of his movies seems to spring less from this consistent theme than from a central ambivalence. Like one who at once observes and participates, Herzog balances between two positions, offering both lucid analyses of chaotic situations (undertaken in a spirit not unlike that of scientific research) and hallucinatory, seductive visions that plunge his audience into active experience of the irrational.

The analytic strain is, of course, a modernist trait; it yields the entomological metaphors of Signs of Life, the dislocations of physical scale in Even Dwarfs Started Small, and the entirety of Fata Morgana as a catalogue of the debris left in the wake of a ‘drama’ already played out, the latter establishing an improbable rapport between Herzog and certain contemporary avant-garde filmmakers. The strain of irrationality, though, draws on a very much older tradition; it conjures the dark undertow of the German Romantics, immanent in many of Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes and explicit in a novella like Eichendorff’s archetypal Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts, where the ‘hero’ is forever on the point of succumbing to mysterious forces that he senses in the forests and lakes around him. In Herzog’s case, the point is the balance itself; it might alternatively be characterised as the ability to inflect ‘realism’ with expressionism and vice versa, without any overriding commitment to either mode.

Aguirre, Wrath of God is something of a departure for Herzog. Its relatively lavish budget doubtless reflects the participation of Klaus Kinski (a presence as astonishing as Eddie Constantine’s in Alphaville); Herzog has used it to engage – for the first time – in a specific historical reconstruction, although the action, like the diary on which it purports to be based, is his own invention. His subject is a quest: fresh from his pillage of the Incas, Pizarro leads his conquistadors over the Andes and down into the Amazon basin, to begin their search for El Dorado. He sends an advance party led by Don Pedro de Ursua and Don Lope de Aguirre to reconnoitre a large tributary of the Amazon. The party meets setbacks and Ursua decides to turn back, but Aguirre mutinies, crippling his superior with a gunshot, and leads the expedition on down the river. As hazards multiply, so does Aguirre’s ambition; he proclaims himself ‘the wrath of God’. After two months of hunger, exposure and attacks from natives, he is the sole survivor, his raft swarming with monkeys as it drifts on towards the Atlantic; he dreams of marrying his own daughter and founding the purest dynasty ever known to man.

The factors that superficially distinguish Aguirre from Herzog’s earlier movies in fact serve to throw his consistent qualities into sharper relief. As in Even Dwarfs Started Small, the exposition is both functional and extremely concentrated: each scene and each detail is honed down to its salient features. On this level, the film effectively pre-empts analysis by analysing itself as it proceeds, admitting no ambiguity. Yet at the same time, Herzog’s flair for charged, explosive imagery has never had freer rein, and the film is rich in oneiric moments of the kind that spark Stroszek’s paroxysm in Signs of Life. The extraordinarily beautiful opening scene illustrates the ambivalence. In long shot, the image of the conquistadors descending the Andes pass brims with poetic resonances: the men are situated between the peaks and the valleys, between conquered land and unexplored forests, between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’, shrouded in mists. In close-up, the procession picking its way down the narrow path is presented and defined with specific accuracy; all the leading characters are introduced, the social hierarchy is sketched (the slave porters in chains, the women carried in chairs) and the twin poles of the expedition’s ideology are signified through the loads it carries (a large Madonna figure, and an even larger cannon). Neither ‘reading’ of the action contradicts the other; they are rather mutually illuminating.

Later the distinction between the literal and the figurative (or perhaps the factual and the speculative) becomes less palpable; by the final sequence, it has disappeared entirely. In the last shot, Herzog’s camera races along the river to Aguirre’s raft and circles it twice before fading out. The effect is to circumscribe Aguirre’s fantasy, localising it to the tattered, infested remains of his raft, isolating him from the land he dreams of owning; but the circling motion further signifies that the quest has reached its goal, that there can be no further to go. Just as the dwarfs’ abortive revolution found its climax at the sight of a helpless camel, so here the quest for a new world and all its riches finds its apotheosis and its cipher in an image of ‘magnificent’ dementia.

Herzog never falters on his way to this complex but uncompromising conclusion. As ever, he eschews the easy formulations of political or moral dogma, and avoids sentiment and rancour alike. By now it’s clear that Herzog is incapable of dishonesties of this kind; like Buñuel or Franju, he will obviously remain true to himself whatever his subject. The clarity and truth of his method, and the value of his tension between rationality and its opposite, are summarised to perfection in a speech by one of the slaves, Runo Rimae (‘He who speaks’), dubbed ‘Balthasar’ by his captors, when he tells Aguirre’s uncomprehending daughter that he pities her and her companions, for he knows that there is no way out of ‘their’ jungle.
Tony Rayns, Sight and Sound, Winter 1974-75

Werner Herzog on ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’
Aguirre may be within the adventure genre, but that was never a part of its conception. There are directors who can consciously work within genres and still make personal films; I just don’t think of film in those terms. In part this may explain why I am poor. Money from foreign sales of films like Aguirre comes in, but it is never very much, certainly never much at any one time, and one can’t plan to have enough that way for the next film.

We had incredible difficulties with Aguirre. The footage had to be sent to laboratories in Mexico, and we were never sure exactly what we had. Retakes were impossible anyway. The sequence in which the river rises overnight and almost everything is swept away was written into the film only because that was what actually happened. We had to rebuild the rafts.

Word came back that a good deal of the film we had shot was lost somewhere in transit to Mexico, but we kept shooting and hoped. Later the ‘lost’ film was found sitting outside the customs shed in Mexico City. One night I had less than one mark in my pocket, and the next day we had to feed the entire cast and crew. Relationships became strained, and at one point I literally threatened to kill one of the actors if he didn’t behave. I might have done it, too. You see, it finally isn’t the money that makes the film, it is the fire.
Interview by David L. Overbey, Sight and Sound, Spring 1975

Director: Werner Herzog
Production Companies: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, Hessischer Rundfunk
Producer: Werner Herzog
Associate Producer: Daniel Carino
Production Managers: Walter Saxer, Wolf Stipetic
Collaborators: Gustavo Cerff Arbulú, Martje Grohmann, Georg Hagmüller, Ina Fritsche, René Lechleitner, Ovidio Ore
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
Directors of Photography: Thomas Mauch, Francisco Joán, Orlando Macchiavello
Special Effects: Juvenal Herrera, Miguel Vazquez
Editor: Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus
Music: Popol Vuh
Sound: Herbert Prasch
Post-synchronisation: Bob Oliver

Klaus Kinski (Don Lope de Aguirre)
Cecilia Rivera (Flores de Aguirre)
Ruy Guerra (Don Pedro de Ursua)
Helena Rojo (Inez de Atienza)
Del Negro (Brother Gaspar de Carvajal)
Peter Berling (Don Fernando de Guzman)
Daniel Ades (Perucho)
Armando Polanah (Armando)
Edward Roland (Okello)
Daniel Farfan
Alejandro Chavez
Antonio Marquez
Julio Martínez
Alejandro Repullés
Indians of the Lauramarca Co-operative
Justo Gonzalez (soldier) *

West Germany 1972
94 mins


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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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