Film / Aguirre, the Wrath of God

"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.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God contains examples of:

  • 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 
  • Aside Glance: When making his first declaration that he is "the Wrath of God", Aguirre gazes directly into the camera for a few very unsettling moments.
  • Ax-Crazy: Aguirre.
  • Badass Boast:
    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.
  • Big Bad: Don Lope de Aguirre's ambition is what ruins the expedition.
  • 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.
  • The Blind Leading the Blind: Nobody has a clue where they are going, but they push on like crazy.
  • Bold Explorer: The film takes this trope to the point of insanity, as Lope de Aguirre explores South America in search of a City of Gold, ignoring death and deprivation among his men along the way.
  • Booby Trap: Early in the film, a Spaniard exploring the jungle walks into a sling which draws him up into a tree by some unseen contraption. Moments later we see blood dripping from above, revealing that the man has met his doom, although we do not see how.
  • Burning the Ships: After promoting Don Fernando de Guzmán to 'Emperor of El Dorado', Aguirre makes Carvajal write a letter to King Philipp of Spain which declares not only their defection from Spain, but also the "overthrow" of the House of Habsburg and the "dethronement" of Philipp. The letter is kept by Aguirre, who in this way makes sure that Guzmán and the rest cannot bail out of their rebellion, as the letter is incriminating proof of their complicity.
  • Camping a Crapper: Guzmán is murdered on a visit to the toilet.
  • Cannibal Tribe: "Meat is passing by!"
  • Captain's Log: The journal of Gaspar de Carvajal. As it turns out, Carvajal is a blatant case of an Unreliable Narrator, which however does not stop him from narrating. Which is actually kind of funny.
  • Cassandra Truth: Inez warns Ursúa of Aguirre's rebellious scheme, and Aguirre of what she calls "God's punishment". Both warnings are unheeded.
  • Ceiling Corpse: Early on, a troop of Spaniards are exploring the jungle when the last of them catches his foot in a sling and is silently drawn up into a tree. Moments later, another Spaniard turns around to look for his comrade. Looking around confusedly, he suddenly sees blood dripping from above on nearby leaves. He looks up, is terrified and runs off screaming "Indians! Indians!" We never see what happened to the man up on the tree, but it is clear he is dead.
  • Chewing the Scenery: You're half afraid he's going to eat that monkey.
  • City of Gold: El Dorado. Averted.
  • Death Glare: If looks could kill, Aguirre's could.
  • Determinator: Aguirre will never ever give up.
  • Downer Ending: The entire expedition goes utterly wrong. Everybody dies, and the last scene is Aguirre completely snapping while drifting along the Amazon, surrounded by monkeys and corpses.
  • The Dragon: Perucho, Aguirre's right-hand man, doer of dirty work.
  • Dwindling Party
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Aguirre loves his daughter. Maybe even too much...
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: They give a powerful effect to the ending.
  • 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."
  • Fat Bastard: Don Fernando de Guzmán.
  • Fingerless Gloves: Aguirre wears them.
  • 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.
  • 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, and no secrets to be discovered - the river and jungle just go on and on forever. The good guys perish together with the bad guys, killed more or less evenly by either the implacable jungle, or by each other, and nobody learns anything from it.
  • A God Am I: More exactly, the Wrath of God.
  • Good Is Dumb: The considerate and noble-minded Don Ursúa is indeed very easy prey for Aguirre and his cronies.
  • Hong Kong Dub: Of sorts. The film has a large international cast, and the only common language was English. It was then dubbed into German. This has the odd effect that, when watching it subtitled in English, the subs sometimes match the lips.
  • 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.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Ursúa trusts Carvajal way too much.
  • 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."
  • Hungry Jungle: The River of Insanity, the lack of food, the hostile natives, and the otherwise total isolation drive the group insane.
  • Hypocrite: Carvajal. Guzmán and Perucho to a lesser degree.
  • Incest Is Relative: When Aguirre finally loses it, he states what he plans to do with his daughter, whom he fails to remember is already dead.
    Lope de Aguirre: I, the wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I'll found the purest dynasty the earth has ever seen.
  • It's Quiet... Too Quiet: Then the natives appear.
  • Kangaroo Court: Set up to condemn Ursúa.
  • Kick the Dog: Yell at the horse, toss the monkey.
  • Left Hanging: The ultimate fate of Armando and Inez, and also Aguirre himself.
  • Leave the Camera Running: Many scenes. A few of them, like an initial shot of a tumultuous river, don't have actors included.
  • Losing Your Head: Aguirre beheads a man when he talks of turning back. The head keeps talking.
    Aguirre: "That man is a head taller than me. That may change."
  • MacGuffin: The city of El Dorado.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: "This didn't hurt as much as I thought it would."
  • Mind Screw: The ship in the treetops. Shared Mass Hallucination? Sanity Slippage? Then why do we see the ship? Are we getting mad, too? If it is real, how the hell did it get up there? And if Aguirre is right in saying that it is real, does that mean that Aguirre is sane, and the others have gone around the bend?
  • Mr. Exposition: Gonzalo Pizarro, and a fine job he does.
  • 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.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed
  • Opening Scroll
  • Parental Incest: After his crew is all killed Aguirre declares that he'll found a new dynasty with his daughter.
  • Pet the Dog: Aguirre's interactions with his daughter.
  • Pirate Parrot: Perucho's parrot. Perucho may not be a pirate, but he definitely is of equally low moral fibre.
  • Protagonist Title
  • 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.
  • River of Insanity: The whole plot.
  • Rousing Speech: Aguirre gives two of these of importance: First he persuades the men who accompany him to mutiny, and the second is ironic because the people he tries to rouse are all dead.
  • Scary Black Man: Parodied when a black slave is forced to remove his clothes and run ahead of the soldiers in the belief that he will scare the natives.
  • Scenery Porn
  • Shout-Out:
    • 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.
  • Sliding Scale of Cynicism Versus Idealism: A very cynical movie.
  • 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.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Carvajal.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The story is a conflation of the historical Pizarro-Orellana expedition of 1541-42 with the Ursúa-Aguirre expedition of 1560, seasoned with a taste of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
  • Villain Protagonist: Aguirre.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • What happened to the horse?
    • How the ship came up into the treetops is never resolved. In the DVD Commentary, Herzog reveals 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. He has not explained how the ship came up there.
    • Armando, Urzúa's right hand man, is never seen again after escaping his cage.
    • Inez walks off into the forest after getting fed up with the whole expedition and is never heard from again.