Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), the Madness of Tyranny

Werner Herzog’s third film, and possibly his most famous, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, is a slow and methodical documentation of a descent into madness. This is true of both, the Spanish soldiers searching for the mythical city of El Dorado, and of the real-life crew who worked on this film. In fact, some of the stories of production are so infamous they transcend the film itself, one of the most potent and shocking stories is that Herzog pulled a gun on lead actor Klaus Kinski, who was talking about walking from the production, and Herzog threatened to shoot him if he tried before turning the gun on himself. In a kind of morbid irony, this descent into murderous rage is reflected almost worryingly well in the quasi-historical characters’ own degradation of sanity. While the real-life production history adds an interesting twist on the story, even ignoring that side of the film, on its surface alone the film does a phenomenal job of portraying this through its characters and technical side.

As I briefly mentioned, the film follows an expedition in the Amazon jungle by a group of Spanish soldiers and noblemen searching for the ‘City of Gold’, after crossing through the Andes (in an awe-inspiringly beautiful opening scene), the expedition comes to a halt in the middle of the muddy jungle as rations and morale dwindle. A small group of 40 men are tasked with travelling further down the river by raft in search of more information or hope about the existence of the fabled city. As this smaller group goes further into the jungle, we start to see the cracks in the group show, with tensions rising, sanity slipping and hierarchy crumbling.

Herzog cleverly and purposefully uses the group sent on the raft as a thematic representation of society, with lots of different groups present in the 40. There’s the traditional nobleman of Ruy Guerra’s Don Pedro de Ursúa, the gluttonous Don Fernando de Guzmán (Peter Berling), the militant Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), as well as an African slave called Okello, a religious Brother (who also serves as the narrator too), many soldiers, Ursúa’s mistress and Aguirre’s daughter. This subsection of different members of society represented in this group allows for some interesting thematic readings of the film, and the descent into anarchy.

As the group run into problems during their journey we see the group dynamic constantly shifting. One of the first issues the group runs into is one of the three rafts being stuck in an eddy, unable to return to the rest of the group, and this leads to Aguirre’s first betrayal of norms. In the way it’s presented the act is purposefully left ambiguous, was this a power grab or is Aguirre putting the needs of the many over the needs of the few? While to the audience it seems fairly clear that it is the former, within the universe of the film it is clearly something the other crew members ponder over. As the film continues it becomes abundantly clear that Aguirre is grabbing power, if not already holding it from the start, but interestingly enough initially after the dethroning of Ursúa as the leader, our titular tirant opts to put Guzmán as the face of the new colony. I think this is a wonderfully analogy about how tyranny forms, it’s not the face of the system, but the real power is controlled by the ones hiding within the ranks. 

One thing I thought was interesting about the film is not only the portrayal of Aguirre’s madness slowly developing, but how subtly we see all of the character’s succumb to insanity. While Aguirre’s is front and centre so it almost overshadows the other’s but there’s some wonderful scenes like the banishing of the horse. But perhaps my favourite example is when there’s a wonderful shot of Guzmán, the religious Brother, and Okello, framed as equals set against the clear blue sky, talking about their wishes for when they reach El Dorado. What’s so clever about the scene is that each of them wish for something that we, as the audience, knows will never happen. Guzmán thinks that El Dorado will lead to him ruling a great kingdom that could overthrow the Spanish empire, the religious Brother thinks that he’ll be able to spread Christianity to the untamed region, and Okello muses that maybe he’ll become a free man in El Dorado. This is a wonderful scene as it encapsulates a much subtler form of madness that has overcome these three key members of the cast. Similarly at different points in the film, all three of them have a moment where it becomes clear to them that their dreams of grandeur will never happen, and for them it serves as their breaking point where they become shells of their former selves and lose all hope. I would love to speak deeper on these breaking points as much like this initial shot they’re all presented brilliantly, but I fear that I would be spoiling too much for any new viewers of the film. 

The film is shot beautifully, all filmed on a stolen 35mm camera (another classic Herzog story you can read about), and the film greatly benefits from this, as well as the minimalist style of filming that greatly benefited the whole finished product. Reading about the production it seems that it was very on the fly filmmaking that made this film so great, the script was changed depending on the real-life roadblocks in filming, the paranoia and underlying tension of the actors came from the poor working conditions of the jungle, and Herzog and Thomas Mauch captured these emotions perfectly and in a way that utilises the real-life conditions of the jungle to reflect with the character’s feelings.

I went into this film expecting something completely different, from everything I knew about Herzog’s films I knew it would be an interesting ride, but the film veered off in ways I couldn’t have predicted but only made me love it so much more. Even disregarding the story of production, which is crazy, the film rests firmly on its laurels as a wonderful character study. The influences this film had on cinema is undeniable, and it has made me so much more excited to take a deep dive into Herzog’s other work.

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