"I am the wrath of god. The earth I pass will see me and tremble."
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes) is one of Werner Herzog’s first films. It deals with the voyage of Spanish conquerors to South America, in which a separate group is formed by Don Pedro de Urzúa, Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) and others. Of course, being alone in the jungle starts driving the people mad.The film kickstarted Herzog’s career and was the first of several collaborations with Kinski. The filming was said to be a nightmare. For example, according to legend, Herzog directed Kinski at gunpoint when the actor refused to follow his commands. Herzog insists that the story is apocryphal, and that he merely threatened to shoot both Kinski and himself should the actor choose to quit the film. Roger Ebert regularly listed it on his top ten movies of all time.
Tropes in this film:
Adipose Rex: Fat, gluttonous and lazy Guzmán is cynically made leader of the expedition and Emperor of El Dorado.
Annoying Arrows: A variation - by the end, the men are simply too exhausted and delirious to feel pain when they're hit by arrows.
Ochello: That is no ship. That is no forest. [thunk] That is no arrow.
Apocalyptic Log: The journal of Gaspar de Carvajal, the supposed basis of the movie.note The real Carvajal did write an account of his voyage on the Amazonas, but it's not an apocalyptic log in real life and the quotations are fictitious.
Lope de Aguirre: I am the great traitor. There must be no other. Anyone who even thinks of deserting this mission will be hacked into 198 pieces. Those pieces will be trampled until what is left can be used only to paint walls. Whoever takes one grain of corn or one drop of water more than his ration will be locked up for 155 years. If I, Aguirre, want the birds to drop dead from the trees... then the birds will drop dead from the trees. I am the wrath of god. The earth I pass will see me and tremble. But whoever follows me and the river will win untold riches.
Beware the Quiet Ones: Aguirre is surprisingly quiet and restrained - for a cruel, deluded madman anyhow. "Quiet menace" describes him well.
Bilingual Bonus: Given that Werner Herzog is German, it might be interesting to note that the German name for squirrel monkeys is Totenkopfäffchen - "Death's Head monkeys".
Black Comedy: Though reviewers rarely comment on it, the movie actually contains a streak of black comedy that is sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle.
Blow Gun: The natives keep sniping at the travelers on the raft with these.
Enforced Method Acting: Herzog wanted Aguirre to be the epitome of Tranquil Fury, but Kinski wanted to produce a raving madman (more akin to his personality). To get his wish, Herzog would intentionally provoke Kinski into unleashing all his fury off-camera. By the time shooting began, Kinsky was exhausted, creating the performance that Herzog desired.
Evil All Along: While the evil intentions of Aguirre and Perucho get obvious very soon, it will come as a surprise to most first-time viewers that Carvajal is playing for the evil team.
Famous Last Words: After being hit by a spear, a soldier says calmly before falling into the river, "The long arrows are becoming a fashion." The English dub changes this to, "I thought it would hurt much more than this."
Foregone Conclusion: The Opening Scroll reveals that the expedition is lost, and its cause a fiction specifically invented to trick white colonists to their deaths. Depending on the subtitles, this may get lost for non-German viewers. Not realizing or forgetting that the ending is already clear is often crucial when this movie gets bad reactions.
Genre Deconstruction: Aguirre can be watched as a genre deconstruction of the 'jungle adventure' movie genre. A group of (mostly) white explorers ventures into an unknown land in pursuit of a fabled city of gold — but there is no lost city, no treasures to be won, no battles to be fought, no secrets to be discovered. The good guys perish together with the bad guys, and nobody learns anything from it.
Good Is Dumb: The considerate and noble-minded Don Ursúa is indeed very easy prey for Aguirre and his cronies.
Hope Spot: Guzmán spares Don Ursúa from immediate execution, so he'll later free himself and save the day, right? Wrong. Ursúa spends the rest of the movie wounded, and when he seems to have finally recovered a bit, he is hanged on Aguirre's orders.
How the Mighty Have Fallen: An Indian slave talks of how he was once a member of the upper caste in the Incan empire, and no-one dared look him in the eye. "Now it is I who has my face lowered to the ground."
No Animals Were Harmed: Averted. Some animals get it pretty rough, what with getting pushed around and yelled at and being left in the hands of a giant madman. Although Herzog later set all the monkeys free, by pretending to be a veterinarian and telling the trappers the monkeys needed to get shots before they could be sold to collectors.
Parental Incest: After his crew is all killed Aguirre declares that he'll found a new dynasty with his daughter.
Pirate Parrot: Perucho's parrot. Perucho may not be a pirate, but he definitely is of equally low moral fibre.
Puppet King: Guzmán is set up as a puppet emperor by Aguirre. By giving the formal leadership to the only other person of nobility, Aguirre assures that Guzmán cannot ever turn back or get second thoughts on their rebellion. Given that Guzmán is pretty incompetent compared to Aguirre, it is clear that the real power will stay with Aguirre.
Pyrrhic Villainy: Aguirre and his henchmen triumph over the good guys, only to meet their own doom.
Red Herring Twist: The men on the raft that is trapped in an eddy get killed by Indians overnight, but three of them have vanished. Armando explicitly wonders what happened to them. We never find out, and plotwise the whole incident serves only as a pretext for Aguirre to show disobedience to Ursúa. Similarly, it is never answered what the wounded Ursúa hides in his fist, if anything. It's brought up twice, but it seems to be totally insignificant in the end.
Two cases of wacky Black Comedy that often strike viewers as bizarre are actually shout-outs to The Icelandic Sagas: The severed head counting 'ten' and the lethally wounded man commenting "the long arrows are becoming a fashion" are scenes taken nearly word-for-word from Njál's Saga and Grettir's Saga respectively. The latter instance is, however, not in the English dub.
Aguirre's line "What is a throne but a plank red with velvet?" is an authentic quote from Napoleon Bonaparte.
Sinister Minister: Oily Carvajal, who manages to be a religious fanatic and a corrupt, greedy hypocrite at the same time.
Throw It In: A lot of scenes were improvised on the spot or were complete accidents. For example, the scene where the raft is destroyed was an accident captured on film.
Tranquil Fury: When Aguirre makes his final monologue proclaiming eternal vengeance on any who would disobey him, to a raft of corpses and monkeys no less, he speaks with in a low, sedate voice. This was a case of Enforced Method Acting.
What Could Have Been: Herzog was travelling with a soccer team while writing the script, and one of them got drunk and vomited on the first several pages he'd done, rendering them illegible. To this day, he has no memory of what was on the lost pages.
The ship in the treetops is never resolved. What is known by Word of God is that the ship originally was part of a subplot that was dropped in the course of filming (it was intended to be a real ship, not a hallucination). As to how it did get up there ... well ...