Treating History as Art with ‘Aguirre: The Wrath of God’ (1972)

I am the wrath of God. Who else is with me? 

As Don Lope de Aguirre, played by Klaus Kinski, mutters these words the audience is shown an honest depiction of rage and madness, when the prize on the other end was rumored to be the lost city of El Dorado, composed purely of gold. The film follows an expedition through the amazon of Peru as the Spanish Conquistador attempts to discover what has been long labeled as a myth.

The journey brought promises of treasures, a new empire and riches for everyone who helped with the discovery. However, none of the above came into fruition. What did materialize were hundreds of deaths, mutinies, starvation and hallucinations. Aguirre, usually referred to as a madman, let his pride and foolish lust for power overtake his senses as he stopped at nothing, bringing upon the deaths of everyone on the expedition, to achieve the unachievable. Yet, his fantasies were real to him, and no one was to tell him otherwise.

Werner Herzog has claimed his affinity for blending the lines between history and artifice. That is, he does not rely on facts to convey truth, but rather on art to metaphorically serve his purposes. This applies directly to Aguirre: The Wrath of God. More than half of the film consists of not only the actual characters, but also the film crew amidst a ferocious yet sometimes eerily calming river, giving the audience a true taste of what it means to be stranded for days on end without much food or safe water. It is within these images in which we find the inspiration Francis Ford Coppola drew from in crafting Apocalypse Now (1979) as both films rely heavily on sequences shot on water amidst a dangerous forest which swallows its prey by the dozens, yet the enemy remains hidden at all times.

Now, we are left to ask what may be labeled as history and what as art? For the most part, Herzog has proclaimed in not paying too much attention to a prevalent historical roadmap, rather an emotional one. He concentrated on portraying Aguirre as viciously as possible, having much help in casting Kinski who has a haunting gaze not easily matched. The last scene in particular, where he is the sole survivor on the raft proves to be most visually stunning and haunting. Hundreds upon hundreds of monkeys run through Aguirre’s feet and body as they shift throughout the raft, making their home on the water. The rest of his men have all fallen ill or suffered uncountable hallucinations due to the harsh conditions. However, Aguirre remains standing.

The madness of the setting does not get to him, perhaps because he has been mad all along. While the rest of the men are long gone, the monkeys remain prevalent passengers on the raft, symbolizing the degression in evolution the men have experienced as the journey transformed them from sane creatures to incoherent children. Herzog even makes a point in saying the film is based off the only known diary of the expedition, belonging to Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, yet the priest was never on the expedition, however experienced a different journey hundreds of years prior. It is with instances such as these that Werner Herzog prioritizes the crafting of his film within a reliance on art, as opposed to facts.

Thank you for reading,

Omar Antonio Iturriaga