by Brennen Ryan
Werner Herzog’s 1972 Aguirre, Wrath of God is often correctly described as one of the greatest films ever made. The German New Wave classic is largely unknown in the United States, where it is mostly only known to film lovers and to its cult following. Internationally, the film is more widely known. The film’s themes and visual elements had a strong influence on Francis Ford Coppola’s more well-known Apocalypse Now (1979), one of the best of the anti-Vietnam war movies. Coppola himself stated, “Aguirre, with its incredible imagery, was a very strong influence. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.” (1) Both films have similarities with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, whether these similarities are by accident or design. Aguirre, Wrath of God is a criticism of the hubris of man, the hubris of colonialism, the hubris of civilization. Humanity, its civilization and conceits, is dwarfed by the awesome, sublime power of the Amazon, of nature. Imperialism and colonialism are exposed as horrors, but even more-so as a kind of folly. European civilization itself is portrayed as a kind of petty madness. Mighty nature is an ever-present, laughing critic, a kind of counterpoint to the endeavors of man, especially colonialist man.
Although the film uses elements based partially on real historical conquistadors, the film’s plot is largely fictional: Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador who subdued the Incan empire for Spain, reaches the frontier of the Amazonian jungle. Pizarro sends a party of 300 ahead to scout the unknown Amazon. The party is headed by a nobleman, Usura, and his lieutenant Aguirre, played by the great actor Klaus Kinski. Also in the party is a lesser nobleman Gonzalo Guzman, a priest, the slave Okello — who we later learn was sent along because the Spaniards believed that the sight of a black man will terrify the natives, Usura’s wife Inez, Agurria’s daughter, and others. As the conquistador party slowly moves further and further into the Amazon, their numbers dwindle from attacks by nature and natives. They fall into madness in their greedy quest for el Dorado, the mythical city of gold. Usura tries to turn back, but Aguirre leads a mutiny against him. Anytime they have second thoughts or regrets, Aguirre pushes the the party on by carrot or stick.
The film begins with the conquistador party descending from the mountains to the Amazon frontier. Ant-like, the party of nobles, soldiers, indigenous slaves, animals and supplies, are dwarfed by the Andes as they make their way down the trail. The camera follows a caged chicken as it is accidentally dropped and tumbles down the mountain. The death of the animal is the first of many instances foreshadowing the fate of the party. The marchers holds aloft leader Usura’s wife Inez’s sedan chair, coffin-like. Thus the party appears as a kind of funeral procession descending toward death. The somber, foreboding, ominous soundtrack adds to the dark tone throughout the film.
The film relentlessly mocks European-colonial social hierarchies. Over and over, the film depicts the absurdity of carrying the noblewoman Inez in a sedan chair through the jungle. The party maintains its rigid rules, rituals, and hierarchies even as they grow more and more irrelevant as they become further removed from civilization. When the leader Usura tries to turn back, Aguirre mutinies, overthrows Usura, breaks away from the Spanish King, to install the dirty Gonzalo Guzman emperor of the New World. Aguirre’s puppet emperor is portrayed as a bloated slob, often depicted eating and shitting. He eats well while others starve on rationed grains of corn. Echoing the opening of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, one of the first structures they build as they bring “civilization” to the wilds is a jail to house Usura and his followers. And it goes without saying that their mission of conquest is also a mission to save souls. The absurdity of both their doomed predicament of being lost in the jungle with European-social convention is revealed in the constant need of the party to justify itself in a lofty, phony legalism and spirtualism. For example, the priest gives the law’s and God’s blessing to Aguirre’s mutiny against Usura. The mutineers address the King of Spain:
“Caesarean King, by the grace of God through our Holy Mother, the Roman Church, Philip the Second of Castile. We, the undersigned, until yesterday, the seventh day of 1561 regarded ourselves as your servants and subjects. We are now more than 200 miles from your servant, Gonzalo Pizarro. Fate, God’s help and the work of our hands have carried us down a river. A river, the natives call Huallaga, in search of a new land of gold. We have deceived to put an end to quirks of fate. We are forging history, and no fruits of this earth shall henceforth be shared. We rebel until death. Our hands shall perish and our tongues dry up if this is not so. The house of Hapsburg is overthrown. And you, Philip the Second, are dethroned. By dint of this declaration, be you annihilated. In your place we declared the nobleman from Seville, Don Fernando de Guzman as emperor of el Dorado. Flee from hence O King. And may god bless your soul.”
Emperor Gonzalo Guzman is crowned. The slob emperor demands a real throne. He is given a plank to sit on by his new subjects. At this moment, even Gonzalo Guzman senses the absurdity and hopelessness of their situation when he begins to sob uncontrollably on his throne. Although, he snaps out of it as Aguirre dangles the carrot of el Dorado and power. He snaps out of it as Aguirre propels the party via carrot and stick further and further down the Amazon. Later, as their party dwindles, Gonzalo Guzman’s fantasies get bigger:
“All the land to our left and all the land to our right now belongs to us. I solemnly and formally take possession of all this land. Our country is already six times larger than Spain and everyday we drift, makes it bigger.”
As their party slowly dwindles, as their chances for survival vanish, the delusions of the party grow bigger and bigger, until it is only Aguirre, his party dead, replaced by monkeys. By the end, the truth is revealed that despite the various pretensions, the only real man amongst the European mutineers was Aguirre, as though European civilization reduces the mass into mere monkeys to be trained to do tricks. In this sense, the film embraces First Worldist notions that fascist leaders are puppeteer oppressors of their own people. It fails to recognize the agency imperialism does impart to its imperial citizens. By the end, Aguirre, his party dead, talks to himself about empires and race, two interconnected European fantasies:
“And when we reach the sea, we will build a bigger ship, sail north and take Trinidad from the Spanish crown. From there we’ll sail on and take Mexico from Cortez.What great treachery this will be! Then, all of New Spain will be in our hands. And we’ll stage history like others stage plays. I, the wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the earth will will ever know. We shall rule this entire continent. We will endure. I am the wrath of God. Who else is with me?”
The cruelty of European social convention is also portrayed. The slaves are humiliated by having to attend the buffoon emperor Gonzalo Guzman. They are beaten by Aguirre. Okello, the African slave, and indigenous slaves continue to be held in bondage even as the entire party dies, long after there is any reason for them to remain in bondage. Even if they find el Dorado, a land where the gold is endless, the slob emperor insists that he will hold his slaves in bondage:
”It won’t be much longer. El Dorado might be only a few days away. No more rust on the cannon. We will shoot our enemies with golden bullets. Any you, Okello, will serve my food on golden platters.”
The slave Okello laments:
“And all of us will gain something. Governerships, provinces, and women. And perhaps I’ll be free.”
Earlier, one of the indigenous slaves speaks of the horrors of colonization and slavery:
“Plagues have come over my people, earthquakes and flood. But what the Spaniards did to us… is much, much worse. They gave me the name Balthasar, but my real name is Runo Rimac… It means: He who speaks. I was a prince in this land. No one was allowed to look directly into my eyes. But now I’m in chains, like my people and now I must bow my head. Almost everything was taken from us. I can’t do anything, I’m powerless. But I’m also sorry for you because I know there is no escape from this jungle. ”
The indigenous know what is obvious, though fear of Aguirre, greed, and fantasies have blinded the European mutineers: the expedition is a funeral march, the jungle is their grave. An indigenous slave is ordered by Aguirre to play what, under normal circumstances, would be a cheerful, frivolous tune on the Andean flute. However, the tune, which is meant to boost the morale of the party, creates an erie, ominous vibe. The tune reveals just how far they are removed from ordinary life, such that frivolity is not even possible. Even nature itself seems to know the doomed fate of the expedition. Portents all around: the chicken falling to its death in the opening scene, the horse is left to die — nowhere to go — on the edge of the river with no bank, one raft gets stuck moving in endless circles in an eddy, forcing its crew to commit suicide. The final sign is dismissed as a hallucination. They can’t make sense of a ship with sails tangled in a tree dozens of feet above them. They reason it must be an illusion since no river could rise that high. Little do they know this alien new world. The party cannot or will not see the power of nature they face or their doomed situation. The imperial quest for gold and domination of the natural world is futile. It can only end in doom. Nature is too powerful, too sublime, in the end. To think otherwise is hubris.
Christianity too is portrayed as both corrupt and an oppressive tool of colonial conquest. The priest, besides legitimizing Aguirre’s cruelty with spiritualism and legalism, beats and curses the natives over and over. The priest supports Aguirre’s coup against Usura by saying that “the Church has always been on the side of the strong.” The promise of wealth and power overwhelm any well-meaning Christian imperatives. The slob emperor has a heart to heart with the priest who says:
“Let’s not forget the most important part of our mission: to spread the word of God to the savages.”
Emperor Gonzalo Guzman::
“I’m sure you’d like a golden cross studded with jewels, Carvajal, instead of the silver one you lost.”
The corruption of the priest is further shown by his presiding over the show trial for Usura that hands down a death sentence. Usura and his wife Inez, colonialists though they are, represent the last bits of humanity amongst the Europeans within the party. Usura’s wife is criticized for paying the slaves wages. She argues they should be paid just as servants in Spain. The priest patronizingly says, “we understand your confusion my child.” Usura is imprisoned and goes mute, the last voice of any sanity amongst the colonizer, snuffed out. When Usura is hanged, Inez walks off into the jungle to die. Extinguished is he last bit of humanity and reason amongst the European oppressor. If Usura is the liberal imperialist, Aguirre is the the fascist. Expressing an overtly imperial, fascist thought, Aguirre reveals that it is not even about the gold, but empire and the will to power:
“Mexico was no illusion! If we turn back, others will come. And they will succeed! And we’ll remain a failure! Even if this land only consists of trees and water, we will conquer it! And it will be milked dry by those who follow us. My men measure riches in gold. It is more. It is power and fame.I despise them for it.”
Aguirre portrays his extreme colonialist folly as an act of rebellion. He admires Hernan Cortez in Mexico for his disobedience to authority for the sake of conquest. Aguirre declares himself the greatest traitor. It is a common trait in fascist and settler-colonial politics to see the traditional order as not radical enough in the enforcement of its order. Thus fascists and settlers portray themselves as both rebels against the order, but also as radical purifiers and restorers of that same order.
The film also shows the animality underneath the surface of civilization. Aguirre’s men begin to eye Usura’s wife Inez. Aguirre’s executioner is even shown uninvitedly smelling the nape of her neck as she tends to her jailed husband. Despite the care given to pamper and protect the noblewomen in the jungle, the reality is that they exist on the razor’s edge, one man, one protector, away from rape. In the case of his daughter, Aguirre’s stands in the way. In the case of Inez, the men await Usura’s death. Thus the film connects attempts to conquer nature to colonization to patriarchy.
What is so great about Aguirre, Wrath of God is that the discourse on oppression is delivered in a stunning way. Very profound, traditional themes overlap with the more overtly political. The film provokes thought as it overwhelms the senses. It is what Immanuel Kant would identify as sublime, human themes in an awesome, terrifying package. Aguirre is a truly great film, our own sugar coated bullet fired at the bourgeoisie.