Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Genre: Adventure and Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 33 min.

Release Date: December 29th, 1972 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Werner Herzog Actors: Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo, Del Negro, Ruy Guerra, Peter Berling, Cecilia Rivera, Daniel Ades, Edward Roland, Armando Polanah




fter the conquest and plundering of the Incan empire by Spain, the Indians invented the legend of El Dorado, a land of gold located in the swamps of the Amazon headwaters. A large expedition of Spanish adventurers, led by Gonzalo Pizarro, set off from the Peruvian highlands in late 1560. The only document to survive from this lost expedition is the diary of the monk Gaspar de Carvajal.

On Christmas morning, the conquistadors reach the last pass of the Andes, trekking down incredibly steep trails through unforgiving forests of boulders and trees. Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) is certain the entire group will perish in the murky rapids. Their Indian slaves die off rapidly from common colds and the terrain is so unforgiving that progress is practically at a standstill. Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés) orders Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) and his mistress Inez (Helena Rojo) to lead a reconnaissance mission aboard several rafts, so that they may gather information about hostile Indians and potential food downriver. Aguirre is to be second-in-command, accompanied by his own 15 year-old daughter, Flores (Cecilia Rivera). The campaign is given one week to report back, but they’re immediately met with an unfavorable eddy, murderous natives, and the unpredictable Huallaga River, which rises 15 feet overnight. Plus, Aguirre is steadily becoming uncontrollable, anarchic, and insane.

The cinematography is instantly notable as the camera gazes across scenic locations at angles that glimpse enormous arenas and ponder treacherous elements of nature or peaceful fauna, as well as through studious close-ups of emotion-drenched visages. All the while, haunting, progressive keyboard music plays over a stark absence of dialogue. In many ways, the film resembles a documentary, taking in the sights and observing activities that would normally appear un-cinematic. Here, there’s an undeniable emphasis on tension, looming disasters, and coping with the unfolding mutinous scenario. And the finale boasts some astounding shots encircling the fully mad Aguirre.

The silliness of pride and propriety (such as the unmanageable ceremony of a colorfully adorned chariot – or sedan-chair – carried by slaves trudging through knee-deep mud, or the insistence upon extremely inconvenient Christian burials for the dead) are quite obvious. The notions of a fair trial amidst usurpers, the struggles of imposing religion on “savages,” and the pointlessness of money in a place devoid of standard trade are similarly mocked. But it’s the concept of unpreparedness in the face of foreign environments and unseen enemies, like commentary on the Vietnam War or a German take on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” that has the most unnerving significance.

“Our country is already six times larger than Spain!” states the self-proclaimed Emperor of El Dorado (Peter Berling), after declaring all the land he can see on both sides of the river as his new domain. The notion of arrogation clashes satirically with the powerlessness of slaves, the inequality of starving soldiers compared to the gorging Emperor, and the escalating self-destruction and infighting of desperate, greedy, barbaric men. In the lead is Kinski, with such an unfathomably potent screen presence that all he has to do is stare to evoke dread, as his character grows more delusional and bloodthirsty by the minute. Writer/director Werner Herzog’s early adventure epic is dryly humorous, brimming with haunting imagery, artistically hypnotic, and definitely strange, like “The African Queen” fused with “Apocalypse Now.” It’s also absolutely unforgettable.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10