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Film / Aguirre, the Wrath of God

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"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, released in 1972. It is Very Loosely Based on a True Story, that of Lope de Aguirre, a 16th-century Spanish conqueror that explored the jungles of South America. At the start of the film, a large expedition under Francisco Pizarro's brother Gonzalo sends ahead a scouting party, consisting of Don Pedro de Ursúa, Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) and others. Of course, being alone in the jungle starts driving the people mad, and Aguirre above all.

The film kickstarted Herzog's career and was the first of several collaborations with Kinski. The filming was said to be a nightmare. This is the film that gave rise to the legend of Herzog directing 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 the film 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. It comes to a head when, in the middle of a meal, he is distracted by a jumpy horse (which they proceed to kick out), and some of the men use the opportunity to eat the remains of his feast.
    Lope de Aguirre: Have you seen any solid ground that would support your weight?
  • Andean Music: One of the Inca natives accompanying the expedition has a siku pan flute and plays it at times, serving as Source Music. The melody is part of the film's soundtrack by the band Popol Vuh also.
  • Annoying Arrows: A variation — by the end, the men are simply too exhausted and delirious to feel pain when they're hit by arrows.
    Okello: That is no ship. That is no forest. [thunk] That is no arrow.
  • Anyone Can Die: Really in this case, everyone will die. By the end of the movie the only characters that aren't explicitly dead are Aguirre, Inés, and Ursúa's right hand man. The latter two's fate are more ambiguous, but with both them alone in the jungle, it's doubtful they will survive. Likewise Aguirre is last seen alone on the expedition's raft, surrounded by the corpses of his loyalists after a series of native attacks. The real-life Aguirre was ultimately shot and dismembered by the Spanish for his rebellion, though the odds on this Aguirre even getting that far appear exceedingly slim.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The journal of Gaspar de Carvajal, the supposed basis of the movie.note 
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The film's plot starts out as a fictional version of the expedition of Francisco de Orellana, with Aguirre in Orellana's place, before diverging into a fictional ending where they are all implied to die on the Amazonas river. Orellana himself was mentioned in the original script as the leader of a previous expedition, and was supposed to be the owner of the ship perched atop the trees, but none of it appears in the final film.
    • In real life, the name of Aguirre's daughter was Elvira, not Flores. No mention is made in the film that both she and Inés were mestizas, which should have been brought up in their talk with Baltasar (given that they are both portrayed by Mexican actresses, this may be still implicit in the film, though).
    • The real Aguirre was physically the exact opposite to Klaus Kinski, being short and black-haired. His intentions to marry his own daughter are also entirely fictional, that we know at least.
    • In real life, Father Gaspar de Carvajal was not the imperialist slimeball shown in the film, but a deeply social churchman who even became a defender of the indigenous' rights. He was also a member of the Orellana expedition, not the Aguirre one.
    • The expeditioners in the film wear clothing more fitting for Northern Europe than the Amazonian jungle, including big leather kneeboots and poofy sleeves. Similarly, the women are dressed in impractical, fancy court dresses that would have been very unlikely to find in female expeditioners at the time.
    • In the film, the narration refers to their Inca auxiliars as slaves, with some of them being randomly chained like hostages and fulfilling no apparent job in the expedition. By this point of real life, however, indigenous slavery was fully outlawed in the Spanish Empire,note  and even before, it used to be allowed only as a punishment for revolting against the crown or whenever the indigenous themselves handed their own slaves as a tribute, none of which is explicitly the case here.
    • Baltasar claims to be a former high prince of the Inca whose people were enslaved by the Spaniards without provocation, an event that would have not been feasable at any point of the conquest of America. His actor even looks too young for the character to have reigned back when a possible rebellion would have made them eligible to slavery. Even if it was the case, his own royal status would have spared him that fate (he might have been imprisoned and/or executed if he was a ringleader, but never enslaved).
    • Speaking of Baltasar, there is no reason why an Inca nobleman should know the languages of uncontacted jungle tribes in real life.
    • The point about Amerindians being weirded out by black people was Truth in Television, so much that, in a curious incident after the conquest, some black slaves acquired by indigenous aristocrats died when their bewildered owners boiled them alive in an attempt to make them white. However, there is no record that the Pizarros ever attempted to weaponize this in the Amazonas as shown in the film. Had they wanted, they would have likely employed black conquistadors, as they had no shortage of those (Francisco Pizarro himself had two conquistadores mulattos in his entourage, Juan García and Miguel Ruiz), instead of forceful slaves.
    • Aguirre mentions that Hernán Cortés was given the order to return in midst of his way to Mexico, only that he chose to defy it and keep on. In real life, Cortés actually received the order back when his fleet was still in port. This deviation might be chalked up in-universe to Aguirre not knowing the exact details or, given that he is using it as a motivational example, tweaking it deliberately in order to liken it to their own situation.
    • Aguirre also fantasizes at one point with invading Mexico and conquer it from Cortés' hands. In reality, by the point the film is set, Cortés had been dead for thirteen years (not to mention he had ceased being governor of New Spain seventeen years before his death), and Mexico was governed by Viceroy Luis de Velasco. Again, Aguirre might be just losing touch with reality here, if he ever had it to begin with.
  • 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 is certifiably mad, and comes to killing some people of the expedition by himself in his madness.
  • 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.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Unlike the male characters, Inés de Atienza and Florés de Aguirre remain perfectly groomed throughout the film, even though they are in the middle of a hostile jungle.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: Aguirre is surprisingly quiet and restrained — for a cruel, deluded madman anyhow. "Quiet menace" describes him well. Herzog had to go to great lengths to force Kinski to deliver this kind of performance.
  • 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.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Carvajal after taking an arrow to the guts.
  • 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.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: The film ends with Aguirre as leader of an 'empire' of monkeys picking apart his corpse-strewn raft after native arrow barrages have killed everyone else on board. The best that can be said is that he's no less visibly physically unhealthy than he was at any other point in the film, even if his mind is clearly all the way gone.
  • 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 (perhaps fortuntely) 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 Philip II of Spain which declares not only their defection from Spain, but also the "overthrow" of the House of Habsburg and the "dethronement" of Philip. 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 during 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: Inés 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 Aguirre's going to eat that monkey.
  • Cold Ham: Kinski as Aguirre is extremely dramatic, snarling obviously deranged dialogue — at a perfectly normal volume, and limping around instead of stomping and flailing.
  • Death Glare: If looks could kill, Aguirre's could.
  • Determinator: Aguirre will never ever give up. Eventually deconstructed as everyone dies because of his insane quest and he mentally snaps while surrounded by enemies.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Aguirre in general. Specifically during his monologue about being the wrath of God, speaks in a low voice, almost whispering.
  • 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. Historically, Aguirre would eventually be captured and executed by the Spanish, and this version is in a dire enough situation that he almost certainly won't get far enough for his own countrymen to kill him.
  • The Dragon: Perucho, Aguirre's right-hand man, doer of dirty work.
  • Dramatic Necklace Removal: When Aguirre rips the necklace with the golden trinket off the native's neck.
  • Dwindling Party: Party members die off one after the other until only Aguirre is left standing.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Don Fernando de Guzmán's introduction scene has Gonzalo Pizarro bring up Guzmán's nobility and accomplishments as we see Guzmán mindlessly munching down on food. This shows us that Guzmán is a bumbling buffoon who isn't fit to lead anything.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Aguirre loves his daughter. Maybe even too much...
  • Everything Sounds Creepier in German
  • Evil All Along: While the evil intentions of Aguirre and Perucho become obvious very soon, it will come as a surprise to most first-time viewers that Carvajal is playing for the evil team.
  • Fat Bastard: Played With for Don Fernando de Guzmán. He's overweight and goes along with Aguirre as his puppet king. However, of all the traitors, he's the least malicious and much less prone to kicking the dog. Even the scene showing his gluttony, when he gorges himself on their low supplies whilst his men starve, is played for laughs when they all just steal his food when he's not looking.
  • 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.
  • From Bad to Worse: The whole journey in a nutshell. Things for Aguirre and the crew just gets worse and worse as they search for El Dorado.
  • 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 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 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: The slave Baltasar 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." This also foreshadows how the Spaniards will be humbled.
  • 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.
  • Insert Cameo: Werner Herzog's hand is one of the ones keeping Aguirre's daughter's carriage from tipping into the Amazon.
  • It's Quiet… Too Quiet: Then the natives appear.
  • Kangaroo Court: Set up to condemn Ursúa.
  • Kensington Gore: The blood looks pretty fake.
  • Kick the Dog: Yell at the horse, toss the monkey.
  • Left Hanging: The ultimate fate of Armando and Inés, 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. These serve to highlight how insignificant the Spaniards and their strivings are compared to nature.
  • Losing Your Head: Taking a rest after the storming of an Indian village, Aguirre notices two soldiers sitting somewhat apart discussing desertion. One of them says that he has counted the river bends they passed. He draws a map into the sand and is counting out the river bends to his companion as Perucho approaches quietly from behind with a machete. When the man is at "nine", Perucho swipes his head off, and we get a shot of the head lying on the ground, counting "ten".
  • MacGuffin Location: The expedition is searching for El Dorado — The City of Gold.
  • 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.
  • Nerves of Steel: While he is far from a stoic man, there is one notable instance for Aguirre. When the keg containing the gunpowder catches fire, everyone else panics and runs for cover -with Emperor Guzmán jumping back first into the river-, while Aguirre simply picks it up and tosses it as far away as possible, saving the raft and its tripulation with it.
  • Off with His Head!: One of the more surreal moments of the film is when this happens to a dissenting member of the crew...whose severed head continues speaking afterwards.
  • Opening Scroll: One given at the start of the film stating the story of Aguirre's crew.
  • Parental Incest: 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.
  • Pet the Dog: Most of the malicious characters get these.
    • Aguirre's interactions with his daughter.
    • Guzmán makes a point not to execute Ursúa but rather to try him, and later defies Aguirre by sparing the man.
    • When attacking a native village, Carvajal is seen rushing to an injured soldier's side, trying to help him.
  • Pirate Parrot: Perucho's parrot. Perucho may not be a pirate, but he definitely is of equally low moral fibre.
  • Protagonist Title: Aguirre is the main character, and he declares himself the "Wrath of God" at one point.
  • 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.
  • 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, which unfold as the party drifts on a literal river, the Amazon.
  • 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.
  • Saharan Shipwreck: An abandoned ship is found atop a tree in the middle of the jungle. The original script expanded this into an actual subplot related to Orellananote  but the final cut leaves it ambiguous and it might as well be a figment of the men's imagination, since they are all mad at that point. Since Aguirre is the ultimate River of Madness story, this is actually very fitting.
  • Same Language Dub: According to Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski requested too much money for the dubbing session, and so his lines were performed by another actor.
  • 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: The Amazon is absolutely gorgeous to behold.
  • 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 if anachronistic quote from Napoléon 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.
  • Sluggish Sloths: Discussed when the title character finds one on the side of the Amazon:
    Aguirre: This animal sleeps its whole life away. It's never really awake.
  • Spoiler Cover: The original poster shows the death of Aguirre's daughter with an arrow in her stomach, which happens around the end of the movie, with Aguirre being completely unfazed by it.
  • Stupid Evil: Aguirre's followers betray their commander Ursúa and go downstream on the Amazon in search of El Dorado. They all die. Turns out that taking orders from a raving evil lunatic wasn't a very good idea.
  • Surreal Horror: A very muted but still pronounced example. While the film starts out as a trip through the jungle, numerous unexplained and/or bizarre events begin happening with the characters displaying little to no reaction to. By the end, the audience ends up feeling in the same state of madness as the characters.
  • Title Drop: Late into the film, Aguirre adopts the title of "Wrath of God".
  • Too Desperate to Be Picky: Two members of the party are so starved near the end of the movie that they resort to eating algae from the raft.
  • Too Important to Walk: Early on we see the ladies being carried in a sedan across dangerous terrain.
  • 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.
  • Translation Convention: Filmed in German, while the characters have to be understood by the viewer as speaking Spanish.
  • Tuneless Song of Madness: Perucho has a habit of singing monotonously to himself, particularly while he's getting ready to do something unpleasant.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Carvajal.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story:
    • The story is a conflation of the historical Francisco de Orellana expedition of 1541-42 with the Ursúa-Aguirre expedition of 1560, seasoned with a taste of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
    • Aguirre's rebellion in the film goes south much faster than the real one, which actually managed to seize the Spanish colony of Isla Margarita. It ended not because of native attacks, but because their attempt at invading Venezuela was met by loyal Spanish troops and an offer of a pardon, which Aguirre's men accepted. He then murdered his own daughter before being captured and shot.
  • 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 used by Orellana, not a hallucination. He has not explained how the ship came up there, though.
    • Armando, Ursúa's right hand man, is never seen again after escaping his cage.
    • Inés walks off into the forest after getting fed up with the whole expedition and is never heard from again.