"Central to the film is Aguirre’s self-theatricalization"INSTAGRAM/@OMARDIMONOPOLI

‘I love it very much’, muses Werner Herzog on nature, ‘but I love it against my better judgement.’ Herzog, a pioneering figure in German New Wave cinema, seems a reluctant Romanticist. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes) follows a 16th century expedition of Spanish conquistadors and their search for the mythic El Dorado. The narration is loosely plucked from the diary of a Dominican missionary, Carvajal. Klaus Kinski stars in the titular role as the maniacal, malcontent Aguirre, who seizes de facto leadership during a scouting mission. Adamant of finding El Dorado, Aguirre leads the group deeper and deeper down the Amazon River, determined to inscribe his name into history. Fortune and madness are always tantalisingly close. Herzog crafts a historical drama fulfilling a Shakespearean ambition.

“Aguirre understands both their hollowness and how to exploit them”

In the opening, we float above the Andes. We watch the conquistadors descend them, returning from the conquest of the Incan Empire. This majestic, imperialist feel is rapidly punctured. Herzog switches to filming hand-held, at foot-level with the expedition, showing the chaos as water and mud splashes the camera lens.

Pompous clothes, immense carriages, decorative idols of the Virgin Mary. All these signifiers of European, coloniser identity and ideology, carried by the expedition, become increasingly impractical and unbearable in the Peruvian jungle. Aguirre understands both their hollowness and how to exploit them. Seizing de-facto leadership of a split-off party from the expedition, he makes Guzman, a comically inept nobleman, monarch, declaring under his name their rebellion from the Spanish Crown. In a mock-coronation ceremony in which Guzman anxiously ponders his legitimacy, Aguirre mutters with corrosive cynicism: ‘What is a throne but a plank covered with velvet – your majesty.’ Aguirre both exploits and deconstructs the symbols European colonial ideology relies on to satisfy his own megalomania.

In turn, the quest for the unobtainable El Dorado is proven to be a projection of fantasy. The ‘city of gold’ is but a colonial wet dream of infinite riches to be seized. Counterpoint is the nightmare of ‘hostile Indians’ hidden in the jungle which pervades the anxiety of the film.

"The narration is loosely plucked from the diary of a Dominican missionary, Carvajal"INSTAGRAM/@CINECERTO

Central to the film is Aguirre’s self-theatricalization. The raft to him becomes a stage where he is the sole hero. Kinski sports an unforgettable pose throughout the film looking like some old, overblown actor. In a quintessentially Shakespearean play metaphor Aguirre states:

We shall control all of New Spain and will produce history as others produce theatre. I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter. With her I will found the purest dynasty the earth has ever seen.’

At the end of the mock-coronation Herzog pans out. The image is held like that of a painting recording a historical event. Theatrical and historical actors are frozen and Aguirre stares through the lens at us – art and histories voyeurs. This verfremdungseffekt brings awareness to how the shaping of history and theatre is interconnected. Both become play-making.

“the film seems an anti-epic: a voyage that never returns home and is re-consumed by nature”

Yet this conflation of history and theatre becomes Aguirre’s downfall. By the climax he is the only man left alive on the stage-raft. Aguirre’s final rhetorical question ‘who else is with me?’ literally falls on deaf ears. Herzog exploits a circular motion of the camera in these last moments, as it turns round and round the raft like a gyre, creating a hypnotic, gyrating rhythm. A final repudiation of the fantasied linear voyage towards El Dorado. Herzog puts it as a ‘fever dream in the jungle, utterly mad, utterly courageous.’ Madness and courage are certainly dexterously balanced here. There is something both tragic and darkly comedic as we see finally see Aguirre floating down the Amazon, the only one left alive, still ranting about his fame and glory to come in his total solipsistic delusion.

The opening quote of this article is part of a greater speech by Herzog from a documentary Burden of Dreams: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xQyQnXrLb0. Nature, to Herzog, is obscene, chaos, misery, base, made in anger, an article vileness, the ‘harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.’ There is also a philosophical depth to these lines which bears relation to Aguirre thematically. We in comparison to nature look like ‘a cheap, suburban novel.’ Herzog’s message is that we must become acquainted with the unceremonious chaos of nature. Rather than conceding to a Romantic view of affinity between nature and “man” in modernity, Herzog views the dynamic between “man” and nature as something humbling. In all our civilized attempts to produce and convey Apollonian order we are inevitably consumed by our natural baseness – like Aguirre.


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Herzog stated in an interview that ‘cinema expresses our collective dreams more than any other medium.’ There is certainly a part of all of us in Aguirre’s hubris, his madness, his futility. Aguirre is often seen as an ‘epic film.’ Yet, in light of Herzog’s monologue on the jungle, the film seems an anti-epic: a voyage that never returns home and is re-consumed by nature. As other critics have noted, in the context of German cinematic history, Aguirre repudiates the glorification of masculine heroism and dominance over nature in Nazi-era cinema. The Aryan-protagonist, Aguirre, is now laughable in his delusional megalomania.

As Herzog pans to the sky in the final scene Aguirre is forever left in our minds floating down the Amazon in search of glory. A perfect dissection of our fatuous and futile human ambitions. Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a German New Wave masterpiece of madness.