Reflections of Madness

50 Years of Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre: The Wrath of God”: A Review

Often imitated but unmatched in its sublime terror, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God is a masterpiece that every generation should contend with. Made exactly fifty years ago on a shoestring budget of just $370,000, Aguirre has a remarkable vitality, which it owes in large part to Herzog’s ability to captivate and horrify his audience. With Aguirre, it’s almost impossible to maintain a safe distance. It’s a knock-down, drag-out fight that leaves you with a few lumps and bruises along the way. But like the jungle that swallows Aguirre and his companions, the film also has a mysterious beauty that pulls you in until you can’t turn back or look away. By the end of it all, you come face-to-face with terror — a sensation that never runs dry no matter how many times you journey down the Urubamba.

We experience terror whenever we confront the titanic powers of nature. What was once gentle, lovely, and seductive transforms before our eyes into something ferocious, crude, and monstrously indifferent. This indifference shatters our most sacred illusions, and in so doing, strips us bare and leaves us greatly diminished. We all seem to have an ancient memory of such things, regardless of our innocence, and most of us would do just about anything to avoid it. And yet there are those who still defy the existential dread that stalks us daily. They proudly shoulder the indifference and walk right into nature’s gaping jaws. They would steal fire from gods.

We have long struggled to know what to do with such characters. Their boldness inspires us, and their suffering gratifies us. But such daring also arouses envy, and the boundary between glory and blasphemy is razor thin. Perhaps this is why Aguirre endures fifty years after its original release. In a time of suffocating illusions, when most would deny nature’s treachery and hide from her awful indifference — all the while pledging to master and tame her titanic powers — a figure like Aguirre stands before us like an angry accusation. He gets a little too close. He interrogates us with those wild raging eyes, and his madness and slow disintegration seem a little too familiar. Aguirre conjures terror even as he is terrorized.

But what should we make of Aguirre?

***

The film sticks to a simple storyline: Spanish conquistadores have defeated and sacked the great kingdom of the Inca and are now in greedy pursuit of the lost city of gold, El Dorado, which according to their Indian slaves, is hidden away in the jungles of the Amazon. A party of conquistadores under the command of Gonzolo Pizzaro has embarked on an adventure to locate the lost city and seize its riches. We are told the account supposedly comes from the diary of a monk in that same party, one Gaspar de Carvajal.

From the opening scene we find ourselves in that uncomfortable limbo between dreams and reality where terror resides. A motley trickle of men and animals make their way down a steep mountain staircase in the Andes — the ethereal sounds of a “choir organ” announcing the descent. And then to the boiling hot jungles down below where we meet the fearless Lope de Aguirre, who drives the chained Indian slaves through the mud and vines until they begin to die like flies.

Nature’s treachery begins at the edge of the Urubamba River where everything slowly grinds to a standstill. With such little progress and provisions beginning to dwindle, Pizzaro announces that he will dispatch forty men to travel down the river in hopes of obtaining food and information about El Dorado’s whereabouts. Pizzaro selects an aristocrat, Don Pedro de Ursua, to lead the excursion, with Aguirre serving as his second-in-command. Carvajal and the glutinous nobleman, Don Fernando de Guzman, join the party, as well as more than a dozen Indian slaves and several handpicked fighters. Ursua’s mistress, Flores, and Aguirre’s 15-year-old daughter, Inez, also accompany the men.

As Ursua’s expedition floats down the Urubamba in rafts of junglewood, they pass through a series of rapids and one of the rafts ends up stranded in an eddy. As the rest of the men are forced ashore to watch their helpless comrades, discontent begins to spread. And by the time Pizzaro recognizes the futility of his mission and decides to turn back, Aguirre has already launched a coup. Openly defying his commander, Aguirre refuses to turn back. El Dorado must be close. They don’t need Pizzaro. And after all, Hernan Cortez spurned the Crown once before and then went on to conquer an empire.

“That’s how he became rich and famous… Because he disobeyed!”

The coup is relatively quick. Ursua is mortally wounded and the few loyalists are either murdered or put in chains. Aguirre is in charge now, and his red-hot will chastens the other survivors. He nominates the bumbling Guzman to act as the party’s official leader, and within the day, he declares the portly nobleman the new emperor of El Dorado. The party returns to the rafts and continues down the river.

As the band of conquistadores venture deeper into the jungle, time seems to melt away and a deep foreboding settles in — there are no celestial pipe organs here. Somewhere they happen upon a burning village where they find remnants of a cannibalized corpse. Later down the river, the shrieks and whistling of birds so present in every other part of the jungle melt away, and the men are left to float through a harrowing stillness. They soon discover one of their party has been killed, a dart buried in his neck. Only Aguirre seems to keep his wits during these silent attacks, which become more and more frequent as they float on. To calm his men, Aguirre commands one of the slaves to play a wooden pan-flute, inviting a kind of carnivalesque gaiety amid the mounting casualties and sinking dread.

The party slowly begins to disintegrate as it drifts along the endless Urubamba. They run out of food, Emperor Guzman is murdered, and Ursua is later taken ashore and hanged. With each passing day the men become more haggard and Aguirre begins to stoop. Yet despite his deformed appearance, Aguirre’s eyes are always filled with fury. He scuttles about with a tenacious energy that grows alongside the agony of his companions.

The survivors find and sack another Indian village, but the inhabitants kill several men with arrows and darts. As the survivors gather among the burning huts, Flores disappears into the jungle — never to be seen again. And even after this meager victory, some of the men begin to doubt. Aguirre has a suspected traitor murdered, and with eyes blazing, like a man possessed by some unclean spirit, he harangues the handful of starving men:

“I am the great traitor. There must be no other… 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.”

Back on the river, the men continue to starve. Their doubt and desperation is unmistakable, but Aguirre ignores it. He simply presses on, looking more deformed and ferocious than ever. Even as his companions drape themselves over boxes and sprawl out across the base of the raft, Aguirre remains standing — always staring into the bowels of the jungle.

Hysteria soon joins the despair onboard. At one point the men spy a ship perched atop a towering jungle tree, as if in a dream. They think they are hallucinating, but Aguirre insists the ship is real. He wants it recovered, but his companions are too weak to stand.

The pipe organ from the opening scene in the mountains returns for the last moments of this wretched band of starving men. The raft is attacked by a shower of arrows. The Spaniards die slowly as they are hit, one by one, but they are too weak to scream. Aguirre’s daughter, Inez, is killed by an arrow, and Aguirre catches her as she collapses to the ground. When the attack ends, Aguirre is the only soul left.

The jungle slowly consumes Aguirre in its savage embrace. Scores of monkeys invade the vessel, which is beginning to come apart, but Aguirre pays them no mind. He is still scheming, seething, and plotting his empire.

“I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her found the purest dynasty ever known to man. Together we will rule the whole of this continent. We will endure. I am the Wrath of God. Who else is with me?”

Dancing among the corpses, the monkeys only chirp and squeal at this strange and vicious man with menacing eyes and curses on his lips.

***

In reviews of the film, most critics tend to keep Aguirre at a comfortable distance. They insist the conquistador is mad, his companions drunk on greed and religious zeal, and their whole doomed enterprise an allegory of capitalism, Christianity, and imperialism. Klaus Kinski’s Teutonic features are also too much to resist, and Aguirre is often compared to Hitler. Most reviews treat the film as a morality play. For transgressing our liberal sensibilities, Aguirre and his companions are rightly sacrificed on the altar of justice, which waits ever so patiently at the end of the Urubamba.

By safely retreating into the realm of ideology, and with the jungle serving as a divine instrument of justice — or worse, a prop — the viewer can stand tall before a harmless facsimile of nature and retain his dignity. It is a shrunken world with no patience for terror, and thus, no room for tragedy.

But if we leave the riverbank and join the party of the damned, we just might feel the weight of a universe that is tragically indifferent to our hopes and sufferings. It bends and breaks everything in sight and leaves us terribly disfigured. With an endless river before us and a million horrors at every side, only our dreams can comfort and guide. Maybe this is why Aguirre is such an arresting figure. He is blasphemous, cold-blooded, and deceitful, and he unashamedly yearns for power and fame. But unlike his companions, he appears to grasp the crushing indifference of the world around him, and he reaches out for the impossible all the same. Aguirre would steal fire from the gods, and in this way, he truly is a tragic figure.

Can we fault Aguirre for his madness? Do we not have a thousand heroes who tempted fate and cheated death? Do we not worship those who would steal fire from the gods? And what of our own lost cities of gold? Can those who sit comfortably on the shore condemn a man who would search for El Dorado, while whole nations strive for world peace, a workers’ paradise, or a planet “saved” from climate change?

Over the years I’ve returned to Aguirre time and again. Each journey down the Urubamba uncovers fresh secrets and an old memory for every agony. The jungle becomes ever more treacherous, the river grows deeper, the misery throbs and the horror chokes, and even Aguirre himself transforms — from conniving and traitorous to simply mad, and then to something more intimate and recognizable — a reflection, perhaps. But the terror is always there. The jungle has no love for us, the river is neverending, and only in our dreams can we return safely to shore. Our terror is knowing that we are on that raft, and that Aguirre stands so very close.

Lafayette Lee is a writer.


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