See W. Lowry, Lope Aguirre, the Wanderer (1952); A. F. Bandelier, The Gilded Man (1893, repr. 1962); S. Minta, Aguirre (1994).
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes) is an independent 1972 German film written and directed by Werner Herzog. Klaus Kinski stars in the title role. The soundtrack was composed and performed by German progressive/Krautrock band Popol Vuh. Aguirre was given an extensive arthouse theatrical release in the United States in 1977, and remains one of the director's most famous films.
The story follows the travels of Spanish soldier Lope de Aguirre, who leads a group of conquistadores down the Amazon River in South America in search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado. Using a minimalist story and dialogue, the film creates a vision of madness and folly, counterpointed by the lush but unforgiving Amazonian jungle. Although based loosely on what is known of the historical figure of Aguirre, the film's story line is, as Herzog acknowledged years after the film's release, a work of imagination. Some of the people and situations may have been inspired by Gaspar de Carvajal's account of an earlier Amazonian expedition, although Carvajal was not present on the historical voyage represented in the film.
Aguirre was the first of five filmic collaborations between Herzog and the volatile Kinski. Herzog knew Kinski would be perfect as the mad Aguirre, but the director and actor had differing views as to how the role should be played, and they clashed throughout the film's production. Kinski's legendary angry tantrums terrorized the crew and local natives who assisted the production. The production was shot entirely on location, and was fraught with unusual difficulties. Filming took place in the Peruvian rainforest on the Amazon River during an arduous five week period, shooting on tributaries of the Ucayali region. The cast and crew climbed mountains, cut through heavy vines to open routes to the various jungle locations, and rode treacherous river rapids on rafts built by natives.
Aguirre opened to widespread critical acclaim, and quickly developed a large international cult film following. Several critics have declared the film a masterpiece, and it has appeared on Time Magazine's list of "All Time 100 Best Films". Aguirre’s visual style and narrative elements would have a strong influence on Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now.
One of the four rafts becomes separated from the others and gets caught in an eddy. A rescue team is unable to approach the raft until the following day, when all men on the raft are discovered killed by unknown attackers. Ursúa wants the bodies to be brought back to camp for proper burial. Knowing this would slow down the expedition, Aguirre orders Perucho (Daniel Ades) to shoot a cannon at the raft. The corpses are blown apart.
During the night, the remaining rafts are swept away by the rising river. Since supplies start to run out and things get progressively worse, Ursúa decides that their mission is hopeless and orders them to return to the main group. Desirous of power, Aguirre takes the opportunity to lead a rebellion against Ursúa, telling the men that untold riches await them ahead. Ursúa and a soldier loyal to him are shot. While Ursúa's mistress, Inez (Helena Rojo), cares for them, Aguirre, unsure of the loyalty of soldiers, sarcastically suggests the fat, lazy Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling) as the token leader of the expedition. Aguirre proclaims Guzman Emperor in the New World, “dethroning” Philip II. A farcical trial of Ursúa results in his being sentenced to death, but Guzman surprises Aguirre by refusing to allow this to happen. Instead, Guzman pardons Ursúa.
Aguirre proves to be an oppressive leader, so terrifying that few protest his leadership. Those who complain are killed. Only Inez has the courage to speak out against him. Knowing that some of the soldiers are still loyal to Ursúa, Aguirre simply ignores her comments.
The expedition continues on a single, newly built, large raft. An Indian couple approaching with a canoe is captured by the explorers, but when the man expresses confusion at the sight of a Bible, he and his wife are murdered at the insistence of the expedition's priest, Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro). Some days later, Guzman is found dead near the outhouse. Taking advantage of Guzman's death, Aguirre proclaims himself leader. Ursúa is then taken ashore and hanged in the jungle. The group attacks an Indian village, where many of the explorers are killed by spears. The distraught Inez walks into the jungle and disappears.
Aguirre is now the ruler of a group of slowly starving, hallucinating men. The group gapes in awe at a wooden ship perched in the highest branches of one of the tall trees. In a final Indian attack, all remaining survivors including Aguirre’s daughter are killed by arrows. Aguirre remains alone on the slowly circling raft. The raft becomes overrun by monkeys. The crazed Aguirre tells them: "I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. We shall rule this entire continent. We shall endure. I am the Wrath of God!"
The screenplay was shot more or less as written, with some minor differences. In an early scene in which Pizarro instructs Ursúa to lead the scouting team down the river, in the script Pizarro mentions that in the course of the expedition Ursúa could possibly discover what happened to Francisco de Orellana's expedition, which had vanished without a trace years before (see "Historical Accuracy" section). Later in the screenplay, Aguirre and his men find a boat and the long dead remains of Orellana's soldiers. Further down the river, they discover another ship lodged in some tree tops. In the screenplay, Aguirre and others explore the boat but find no sign of Orellana or his men. Herzog ultimately eliminated any such references to Orellana's expedition from the film. The sequence with the boat caught in the upper branches of a tree remains, but as filmed it seems to be simply a hallucinatory vision.
The finale was considerably changed from Herzog's original script. The director recalled, "I only remember that the end of the film was totally different. The end was actually the raft going out into the open ocean and being swept back inland, because for many miles you have a counter-current, the Amazon actually goes backwards. And it was tossed to and fro. And a parrot would scream: “El Dorado, El Dorado”...
Herzog's first choice for the role of Aguirre was actor Klaus Kinski. The two had met many years before when the then-struggling young actor rented a room in Herzog’s family apartment, and the boarder’s often terrifying and deranged antics during the three months he lived there left a lasting impression on the director. Years later, Herzog remembered the volatile actor and knew that he was the only possible man who could play the mad Aguirre, and he sent Kinski a copy of the screenplay. "Between three and four in the morning, the phone rang," Herzog recalled. "It took me at least a couple of minutes before I realized that it was Kinski who was the source of this inarticulate screaming. And after an hour of this, it dawned on me that he found it the most fascinating screenplay and wanted to be Aguirre.
From the beginning of the production, Herzog and Kinski argued about the proper manner to portray Aguirre. Kinski wanted to play a "wild, ranting madman", but Herzog wanted something "quieter, more menacing". In order to get the performance he desired, before each shot Herzog would deliberately infuriate Kinski. After waiting for the hot-tempered actor's inevitable tantrum to "burn itself out", Herzog would then roll the camera.
On one occasion, irritated by the noise from a hut where cast and crew were playing cards, the explosive Kinski fired three gunshots at it, blowing the top joint off one extra's finger. Subsequently, Kinski started leaving the jungle location (over Herzog's refusal to fire a sound assistant), only changing his mind after Herzog threatened to shoot first Kinski and then himself. The latter incident has given rise to the legend that Herzog made Kinski act for him at gunpoint. However, Herzog has repeatedly debunked the claim during interviews, explaining he only verbally threatened Kinski in the heat of the moment, in a desperate attempt to keep him from leaving the set. The famous incident is parodied in Incident at Loch Ness, which Herzog co-wrote.
All of the actors spoke their dialogue in English. The members of the cast and crew came from sixteen different countries, and English was the only common language among them. In addition, Herzog felt that shooting Aguirre in English would improve the film's chances for international distribution. However, the small amount of money that had been set aside for post-synchronization "left Peru with the man in charge of the process; both absconded en route." The English language track was ultimately replaced by a higher quality German language version, which was post-synched after production was completed. Herzog claims that Kinski requested too much money for the dubbing session, and so his lines were performed by another actor.
The low budget precluded the use of stunt men or elaborate special effects. The cast and crew climbed up mountains, hacked through thick jungle, and rode ferocious Amazonian river rapids on rafts built by natives. At one point, a storm caused a river to flood, burying the film sets underneath several feet of water and destroying all of the rafts built for the film. This flooding was immediately incorporated into the story, as a sequence including a flood and subsequent rebuilding of rafts was shot.
The camera used to shoot the film was stolen by Herzog from the Munich Film School. Years later, Herzog recalled:
To obtain the monkeys utilized in the climactic sequence, Herzog paid several locals to trap 400 monkeys; he paid them half in advance and was to pay the other half upon receipt. The trappers sold the monkeys to someone in Los Angeles or Miami, and Herzog came to the airport just as the monkeys were being loaded to be shipped out of the country. He pretended to be a veterinarian and claimed that the monkeys needed vaccinations before leaving the country. Abashedly, the handlers unloaded the monkeys, and Herzog loaded them into his jeep and drove away, used them in the shot they were required for, and released them afterwards into the jungle.
The film was produced in part by German television station Hessischer Rundfunk, which televised the film on the same day it opened in German theatres. Herzog has blamed this for the relatively poor commercial reception of the film in Germany.
Aguirre received a theatrical release in the United States in 1977 by New Yorker Films after it had already been an "enormous cult favorite" in "such places as Mexico, Venezuela, Algiers and Paris." It immediately became a cult film in the U.S., and New Yorker Films reported four years after its initial release that it was the only film in its catalog that never went out of circulation.
The film received mostly positive critical notices upon release. Vincent Canby, writing in The New York Times, called it, "[A]bsolutely stunning...Mr. Herzog views all the proceedings with fixed detachment. He remains cool. He takes no sides. He may even be slightly amused. Mainly he is a poet who constantly surprises us with unexpected juxtapositions...This is a splendid and haunting work. In Time, Richard Schickel opined that "[Herzog] does the audience the honor of allowing it to discover the blindnesses and obsessions, the sober lunacies he quietly lays out on the screen. Well acted, most notably by Klaus Kinski in the title role, gloriously photographed by Thomas Mauch, Aguirre is, not to put too fine a point on it, a movie that makes a convincing claim to greatness. Time Out's Tony Rayns noted, "...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.
The film's reputation through the years has continued to grow. J. Hoberman has written that Aguirre "is not just a great movie but an essential one...Herzog's third feature...is both a landmark film and a magnificent social metaphor. James Monaco's The Movie Guide described the film as "A stunning, terrifying exploration of human obsession descending into madness...a staggering experience that assaults the senses." Danny Peary wrote, "To see Aguirre for the first time is to discover a genuine masterpiece. It is overwhelming, spellbinding; at first dreamlike, and then hallucinatory." Roger Ebert has added it to his list of "Great Movies", and in a 2002 Sight & Sound poll of critics and filmmakers on the best films ever made, Ebert listed it in his top ten. In the same poll, director Santosh Sivan also placed it in his top ten list. In 1999, Rolling Stone included the film on the magazine's "100 Maverick Movies of the Last 100 Years" list. Aguirre was included in Time Magazine's "All Time 100 Best Films", compiled by Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss. Entertainment Weekly named it the 46th greatest cult film ever made. As of 2007, the film was at the number 84 spot of They Shoot Pictures Don't They.com's "1,000 Greatest Films" list, which has been collated from 1,604 critics' and filmmakers' top-10 lists, as well as over 650 magazine and film institute polls.
Aguirre has won several prestigious film awards. In 1973, it won the Deutscher Filmpreis (German Film Award) for "Outstanding Individual Achievement: Cinematography". In 1976, it was voted the "Best Foreign Film" by the French Syndicate of Film Critics. In 1977, the National Society of Film Critics USA gave it their "Best Cinematography" Award. It was nominated for a "Best Film" César Award in 1976.
Aguirre’s musical score was performed by Popol Vuh, a German progressive/Krautrock band. The band was formed in 1970 by keyboardist Florian Fricke, who had known Herzog for several years prior to the formation of the band. He had appeared as an actor in the director’s first full length film, Signs of Life (1968), playing a pianist. The band’s lineup went through many personnel changes throughout its existence (1970 – 2001), with bandleader Fricke and Daniel Fichelscher as the only consistent members. At the time of Aguirre, the band members were Fricke (Piano, Mellotron), Fichelscher (Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Drums), Djong Yun (Vocals), and Robert Eliscu (Oboe, Pan Pipe).
Popol Vuh’s “hypnotic music” for Aguirre met with considerable acclaim. Roger Ebert wrote, “The music sets the tone. It is haunting, ecclesiastical, human and yet something else…[T]he music is crucial to Aguirre, the Wrath of God… Allmusic noted, “The film's central motif blends pulsing Moog and spectral voices conjured from Florian Fricke's Mellotron-related "choir organ" to achieve something sublime, in the truest sense of the word: it's hard not to find the music's awe-inspiring, overwhelming beauty simultaneously unsettling. The power of the legendary opening sequence of Herzog's film…owes as much to Popol Vuh's music as it does to the director's mise-en-scène.”
Herzog explained how the choir-like sound was created, "We used a strange instrument, which we called a 'choir-organ.' It has inside it three dozen different tapes running parallel to each other in loops. ... All these tapes are running at the same time, and there is a keyboard on which you can play them like an organ so that [it will] sound just like a human choir but yet, at the same time, very artificial and really quite eerie.
In 1975, Popol Vuh released an album entitled Aguirre. Although ostensibly a soundtrack album to Herzog's film, the six-track LP included only two songs ("Aguirre I (L'Acrime Di Rei)" and "Aguirre II") taken from Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The four remaining tracks were derived from various recordings done by the group circa 1972 - 1974.
Aguirre was only the first of many collaborations between the band and the director. Popol Vuh provided the music for Herzog’s The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974) , Heart of Glass (1976), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985), Cobra Verde (1987), and My Best Fiend (1999). Fricke died in 2001, and Herzog’s Wheel of Time (2003) featured a previously unreleased song by Popol Vuh.
Several critics have noted that Aguirre has appeared to have had a direct influence on several other films. Martin Rubin has written that “[a]mong the films strongly influenced by Aguirre are Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005).” J. Hoberman agreed, noting that Herzog’s “sui generis Amazon fever dream” was “the influence Malick's over-inflated New World can't shake.” Channel 4 opined “This is an astonishing, deceptively simple, pocket-sized epic whose influence, in terms of both style and narrative, is seen in films as diverse as Apocalypse Now, The Mission, Predator, and The Blair Witch Project (1999).
The film’s major characters, Aguirre, Ursúa, Guzman, Inez, and Florés, were indeed involved in a 1560 expedition that left Peru to find the city of El Dorado. Commissioned by Peru’s governor, Ursúa organized an expeditionary group of 300 men to travel by way of the Amazon River. He was accompanied by his mixed-race mistress, Dona Inez. At one point during the journey, Aguirre, a professional soldier, decided that he could use the 300 men to overthrow the Spanish rule of Peru. Aguirre had Ursúa murdered and proclaimed Guzman as “The Prince of Peru”. Guzman himself was eventually murdered when he questioned Aguirre’s scheme of sailing to the Atlantic, conquering Panama, crossing the isthmus and invading Peru. Many others who attempted to rebel against Aguirre were also killed. The surviving soldiers conquered Isla Margarita off the coast of Venezuela and made preparations to attack the mainland. However, by that time Spanish authorities had learned of Aguirre’s plans, and when the rebels arrived in Venezuela, government agents offered full pardons to Aguirre’s men. All of them accepted the deal. Immediately prior to his arrest, Aguirre murdered his daughter Florés, who had remained by his side during the entire journey. He was then captured and dismembered. Herzog’s screenplay merged the 1560 expedition with the events of an earlier Amazonian journey in 1541 – 1542. Like Ursúa, Gonzalo Pizarro and his men entered the Amazon basin in search of El Dorado. Various troubles afflicted the expedition and, sure that El Dorado was very close, Pizarro set up a smaller group led by Francisco de Orellana to break off from the main force and forge ahead, then return with news of what they had found. This group utilized a brigantine to journey down the river. Accompanying Orellana was Gaspar de Carvajal, who kept a journal of the group’s experiences. After failing to find the legendary city, Orellana was unable to return because of the current, and he and his men continued to follow the river until he reached the estuary of the Amazon in 1542.
Kinski’s crazed performance bore similarities to the real Aguirre. A “true homicidal megalomaniac”, many of his fellow soldiers considered his actions to be that of a madman. Kinski’s use of a limp reflected one that Aguirre actually had, the result of a battle injury. Aguirre’s frequent short but impassioned speeches to his men in the film were accurately based on the man’s noted “simple but effective rhetorical ability.”