Stones & Tears: on Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972)

Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) confronting his men in Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, Wrath of God". There is bright white text with the film's title against a green background.

Of all the scenes most haunting within Werner Herzog’s 1972 drama, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, is the scene when a horse is shoved off the wooden raft and left to die alone in the Amazon jungle. Then, as the camera pulls away at the same pace as the river itself, the horse remains still, standing, and solitary. We never see the animal die, but like the doomed men on the raft, we know that death awaits. Perhaps we must tell ourselves that abandonment is a better fate for the helpless creature than continuing on this ill-fated expedition.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a visionary film both in approach and style, as it presents an eye-level realism of what might have transpired among a group of tired, starving explorers in search of the nebulously located ‘gold city’ of El Dorado during each passing day in 1560. Commencing on New Year, they hike down a foggy mountain through the drizzle and toil, and we see their tiredness, their discomfort. They are damp and dirty and running out of patience. In terms of maps, no one knows exactly where they are headed, but their idealism leads them, regardless. The journey treks on without any promise of arrival—do they know they are going in circles? Little do they know that after succumbing to hunger and fatigue, they will grow delusional when nothing presented seems real, be it a poisoned arrow to the body or a boat stuck in a tree.

What is most striking is the film’s minimalist approach, wherein the spare dialogue serves as a contrast to the lush jungle around those attempting to conquer. At times we are presented with a voiceover that details the explorers’ events as though the words are being read rather than felt. From the very beginning, when the men are struggling down the mountain, already there is a sense of time having passed. Right away, the film gives us the idea that everything we witness is already over and long in the past, despite also feeling like we are there alongside them.

Here lives a Peruvian nature that is unforgiving—the river raises 15 feet overnight and as the clouds lower upon it, the vines appear to strangle. Early on, several men (seven and two Indians) get trapped on a raft and stuck across the rapids, unable to be overheard over the roar of the water. Realizing there is nothing to be done, like the horse, the nine men are left abandoned. Meantime, Klaus Kinski plays Lope de Aguirre, who is a man more motivated by ego than empathy:

I am the great traitor. There must be no other. Anyone who even thinks about deserting this mission will be cut up into 98 pieces. Those pieces will be stamped on until what is left can be used only to paint walls. Whoever takes one grain of corn or one drop of water more than his ration… will be locked up for 155 years. 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.

Aguirre, who engages in an incestuous relationship with his daughter, appears to dote on her under the guise of care. Yet after the death of their leader, Don Fernando de Guzmán (who eats lavishly while the men around him dine on counted corn kernels), Aguirre takes over and no one wishes to challenge him. The film’s descriptions indicate that he is a man undergoing madness, and while this is true, his madness is not raving and ostentatious, but rather menacing and insistent.

With regard to immanent death, Roger Ebert describes it well within his review: ‘One by one, members of the expedition are picked off by the Indians of the jungle, who are rarely seen but are always there. Poisoned arrows become a fact of life; soldiers drop into the backgrounds of shots concerned with other things. The protected women of the expedition sit by idly, their status sacred, their duty to wait until it is time to populate the new empire.’

Indeed, as the morale lowers, each expedient member begins to die as though the jungle has become a series of traps. If it’s not a poisoned arrow, then it’s starvation that will have its way with you. Interestingly, the two women on the expedition offer little more than a quiet rebellion, as one wanders into the jungle never to be seen again, and the other, who is Aguirre’s daughter, is shot with an arrow but not before succumbing silently to an insanity that sits and never speaks.

Nevertheless, it must be stated that the most memorable performance is Kinski who, with his sharp, burning eyes, exudes not an ounce of sympathy. Today and forever, he wishes to conquer this fabled, ‘gold city’ for his riches and legacy. By the film’s end, however, we witness his madness in stark detail:

When we reach the sea, we will build a bigger ship, and sail north to take Trinidad from the Spanish crown. From there we’ll sail on and take Mexico from Cortes. What great treachery that will be! Then all of New Spain will be ours, and we’ll produce history as others produce plays. I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. Together, we shall rule this entire continent. We shall endure. I am the Wrath of God! Who else is with me?

Ok, Klaus. Normally, such hyperbole would be over the top if presented in a Hollywood film, but Herzog cleverly utilizes voiceover to showcase the internal separation from reality that Aguirre is undergoing. Simultaneously, he picks up a tiny, scared monkey—this small, delicate creature, only to indifferently toss it aside. (Shows what he thinks of other primates, be they monkeys or humans, there is no difference.)

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is not only a great film but also an important one that captures the nearness of an otherwise distant time. Throughout, we feel we are alongside the doomed explorers. We witness what they witness, and even see the moist hairs move on their tense faces. This time of 1560 does not feel so long ago, and yet it does. Everything now is similar to what it would have been then—the hunger, the nature, the fever. We are not so unlike them, save for the outfits that distinguish them.

Before writing this review, I stumbled upon the phrase, ‘stones and trees,’ which I initially misread as ‘stones and tears.’ The mind has a way of doing that—imbuing more into words than what is there. Perhaps the same occurs with these explorers—as they continue to believe that there is something further beyond the circular river. Ironically, the film contains no tears; none even from the women who for much of the time, appear stolid and stone-faced.

This brings me back to the scene with the horse—this is the moment of pathos that Herzog captures so well, as it is not the creature’s dying but the pre-dying that overtakes us. The score, which consists of a soft choir organ, aligns with the haunting imagery, the damp fog, and the sweat. It’s not that the men are lost insomuch as they are determined to conquer a place that does not exist other than in their minds. Where that place is exactly they do not know, but Aguirre seems to have an idea. Yet as the days go on their fevers and hungers dominate their fate and no one will be coming out of this alive. Stones and trees enter the scene and then they are gone. Then, we are left with the river and its raging water. Raging is a good word to describe this undercurrent of emotion that in any other primal terror would result in tears if only they were not already too tired and hungry and sick to cry. I am the Wrath of God.

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