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Should I Watch..? 'Aguirre, the Wrath of God' (1972)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the Big Deal?

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a historical drama film released in 1972, and it was written and directed by Werner Herzog. The film marked the first collaboration between Herzog and the actor Klaus Kinski, who plays a Spanish conquistador leading a doomed expedition through a dense jungle on the search for the legendary city of El Dorado. The film also stars Helena Rojo, Del Negro, Ruy Guerra, Peter Berling, Cecelia Rivera and Dany Ades. Shot on location in the Peruvian rainforest, the film's low budget meant that Herzog's relentless pursuit for footage frequently clashed with Kinski's notorious behaviour on and off set. Despite initially being released on TV and in theatres (meaning that box office figures are hard to ascertain for certain), the film is frequently hailed as Herzog's greatest accomplishment and one of the best films of all time. The film also proved popular with other filmmakers as it influenced the likes of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Terrence Malick's The New World. It's stature remains as high as ever, and Herzog himself later chronicled his relationship with Kinski in his 1999 documentary My Best Fiend.

Unmissable

Trailer (BFI release)

What's It About?

In late 1560, a large company of Spanish conquistadores and their native captives are slowly trekking through the Andes in Peru. Having recently secured victories over the Inca Empire, the soldiers are lured by stories of the fabled golden city of El Dorado and under the leadership of Gonzalo Pizarro, they begin their quest to discover the city and claim it for Spain. However, they are hopelessly ill-prepared for how difficult and dangerous the journey is. Eventually, their supplies run out and Pizarro decides to send forward a second, much smaller company to scout the route ahead.

Led by Don Pedro de Ursua and his second-in-command Don Lope de Aguirre, their journey is just as ill-fated as they had experienced previously. As Brother Gaspar de Carvajal documents their progress in his journal, he witnesses an expedition beset by an unrelenting and seemingly endless river, an impenetrable jungle, murderous cannibals and the increasingly unstable Aguirre whose dreams of extreme wealth and power threaten to derail the expedition. As tempers fray and the loss of life increases, it seems that there is no hope of ever finding their way to El Dorado or even back to civilisation...

What's to Like?

I can honestly count on one hand the number of times that a film has literally taken my breath away, fewer still that do so in the opening scenes. After a brief introduction, the film opens on a cloud-shrouded mountain path that twists its way from peak to peak with dozens of distant extras slowly and perilously making their way down and then back up again. It's even more staggering when you see the amount of stuff they are carrying - sedan chairs, a cannon on wheels, long halberds that would be utterly impractical in a jungle setting. And of course, this is all filmed for real: no fancy CG, no stunt doubles, all filmed on location for real. Even the haunting soundtrack, an otherworldly choral tone that gives things a surreal and dreamlike feel, stays with you long after the film has finished. The film wins you over instantly with the technical clarity and sheer strength of vision straight from the first reel. It is, in a word, stunning.

In the centre of this maelstrom is Kinski's Aguirre, a sneering megalomaniac who seems to look at everything from the corner of his eye. Initially happy to let weaker ones lead, his growing intolerance and lust for power drive him and the expedition forward. It's hard to imagine anyone playing the part as well as Kinski with the possible exceptions of Willem Dafoe or Nicolas Cage when he's in lunatic mode. Kinski is as extreme a presence as the jungle itself, becoming violent and then passive with little provocation. It's an unforgettable experience, much like the film itself, but his presence is unsettling to say the least.

The film's narrative is a little weak but it doesn't need to be - this is a film of mood and empathy rather than a traditional story with a beginning, middle and end. And Herzog knows exactly what he's doing because this film isn't really about conquistadores or even Aguirre's descent into madness. It's about how nature can often thwart the desires of Man despite our mistaken belief that we can overcome it and Herzog's cinematography illustrates both the beauty and the deadly danger of the jungle around them. But there is another allegory that can be made with the unusual sound of German actors playing Spanish characters. Herzog is possibly comparing the imperialist Nazi regime to that of the Spanish Empire, specifically when Kinski's deluded closing speech rings out with echoes of global conquest and racial purity. It's a chilling reminder that while this film is set several hundred years ago, such lunatics like Aguirre aren't consigned to history - something even more relevant these days in the shadow of Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

Kinski (centre) is magnetic as Aguirre, possibly the most cruel and demented leader of men cinema has ever seen - and that's before the jungle gets to him!

Kinski (centre) is magnetic as Aguirre, possibly the most cruel and demented leader of men cinema has ever seen - and that's before the jungle gets to him!

Fun Facts

  • When I say that tensions were running high during the shoot, this is no exaggeration. After one particularly rowdy night, Kinski fired a number of shots from his Winchester rifle into the tents of cast and crew, injuring one extra in the process. Herzog then confiscated the rifle, a souvenir he still has in his possession.
  • It wasn't the only thing Herzog stole during his early career - the 35mm camera the film was shot on was "borrowed" from the Munich Film School, somewhere Herzog never even studied.
  • The film's budget was so low that Herzog had to trade his boots or his wristwatch in order to acquire food. It also meant that no stuntmen were employed and after a flood which washed the rafts they had been using away, Herzog simply filmed the creation of a new raft and included it in the narrative.
  • The real Aguirre (1510-1561) has been described as a "true homicidal maniac" who did declare himself "Wrath of God, Prince of Freedom, King of Tierra Firme". Nicknamed 'El Loco' (the madman), Aguirre openly pursued and murdered a judge who had sentenced him to a public flogging in Potosi, Bolivia. He was eventually murdered by his own men after declaring himself Prince of Peru and launching a rebellion against the Spanish in Venezuela but not before he murdered his own daughter, Elvira.
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What's Not to Like?

There's no getting around the fact that Aguirre, the Wrath of God is not an easy film to get on board with and that's nothing to do with the German language spoken throughout. The film has a bleak, almost apocalyptic atmosphere that starts from that dramatic opening scene and it gets progressively worse as the film continues. By the end, when insanity has taken over and the spectre of death hangs over everything, the film shifts to a more hallucinatory experience which mirrors the delusions and fever felt by the characters. Arrows suddenly appear silently in people, obviously fired from the river banks but by unseen natives. Not only do they take you by surprise but even the characters themselves barely seem to acknowledge them, dismissing them as just another hallucination. This is not a film you should watch if you're looking to cheer yourself up.

The other important thing to remember is that this is a film that doesn't just work on a purely physical scale - it's all about reproducing the feeling of being on this doomed expedition, beset by poor decisions and delusions of grandeur. The film has a deeply ethereal tone, enriched by that artificial choral soundtrack and the sights and sounds of the film are so unusual that the whole thing feels like a fever dream. In terms of a concrete story, there isn't much of one so some viewers will need to be open-minded and receptive to not just what the film is saying but how it's saying it as well. No wonder this is so beloved by students of film studies as it is so open to interpretation. My advice to first-time viewers is don't judge the film until it's finished, drink it all in and pity everyone who ever worked on it because this was as much of an ordeal to make as it can be to watch.

Shot on location in Peru, Herzog's quest for perfection mirrors the same determination of his subject's fruitless pursuit of El Dorado.

Shot on location in Peru, Herzog's quest for perfection mirrors the same determination of his subject's fruitless pursuit of El Dorado.

Should I Watch It?

Cinephiles will rejoice the first time they watch this film which is a staggering achievement of its time and a testament to the talent and sheer will of its director, Werner Herzog. Unlike almost anything else, the film is a dangerous fable on the follies of men drunk on power and the promise of untold wealth - something a few leaders could learn even today. It's not for everybody but Aguirre, the Wrath of God is an incredible picture, an increasingly relevant historical lesson and arguably one of the most powerful demonstrations of what cinema can really do.

Great For: German cinema, lovers of all things film, Herzog's career, environmentalists

Not So Great For: action film fans, non-German speakers, Vladimir Putin and other power-crazed despots

What Else Should I Watch?

Herzog's extensive career is almost as renowned for his documentaries as his feature films but the man has managed to retain a largely arthouse audience throughout. Among his best films are his remake of the original silent vampire film, Nosferatu The Vampyre and another trip to the jungle in Fitzcarraldo - both of which also starred Kinski in the title roles. Among his documentaries which cover a wide range of topics, Grizzly Man is arguably his best as it chronicles the life and death of environmentalist and bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. Featuring footage shot by Treadwell, it's a fascinating insight into the lives of both the bears he studied and lived among but also Treadwell himself who was later found mauled to death in 2003. Lastly, for anyone wanting an insight into the tempestuous relationship between Herzog and Kinski, My Best Fiend is an exploration by Herzog of his time with Kinski (who died in 1991), the often unpredictable nature of the actor but also his extraordinary talent.

There aren't a great many films that depict the Spanish and Portuguese explorers and soldiers that laid waste to the native populations in South America and other parts of the world. Even a filmmaker as talented as Darren Aronofsky couldn't quite make a decent film out it, producing the muddled romantic drama The Fountain which sees Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz play lovers across a thousand years of history. Aside from a couple of efforts from Hollywood's Golden Era like Seven Cities Of Gold and Captain From Castile, it's telling that perhaps the most acclaimed film set during this period of history is the animated family film The Road To El Dorado - a film that has slowly gained a cult following after initially bombing at the box office. A similarly themed effort arrived in 2006 with the historical adventure Apocalypto, telling the story of native Mayans attempting to survive in the dying days of their empire in Mexico in the face of foreign invaders. Directed by Mel Gibson, it drew comparisons with his earlier historical epic The Passion Of The Christ and won plaudits for its use of Yucatec Mayan language and ethnically accurate cast.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Klaus Kinski

Don Lope de Aguirre

Helena Rojo

Inés de Atienza

Ruy Guerra

Don Pedro de Ursua

Del Negro

Brother Gaspar de Carvajal

Peter Berling

Don Fernando de Guzman

Cecelia Rivera

Flores de Aguirre

Daniel Aves

Perucho

Edward Roland

Okello

Technical Info

DirectorWerner Herzog

Screenplay

Werner Herzog

Running Time

95 minutes

Release Date (UK)

14th November, 1974

Rating

PG

Genre

Adventure, Biography, History

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

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