#446: Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Madness and death on a journey into the dark heart of the Amazon
Initial release: 1972
Director: Werner Herzog
There’s a curious thread that links Joseph Conrad’s tortured colonialist/anti-colonialist screed, Heart of Darkness, the brooding horror that is Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now, and Spec Ops: The Line’s deeply symbolic, willfully unentertaining critique of the post-Call of Duty gaming landscape, and that thread is a warning: abandon hope, all ye imperialists who enter here.
Easily belonging in this rarefied club (which, arguably, also includes Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Hideo Kojima’s grimly sardonic examination of loyalty in the uncertain landscape of the Cold War) is Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a stark, minimalist tale of a journey up the Amazon river in search of El Dorado, a lost city of gold. Many have searched for it, none have found it, and as this film shows, the Spanish conquistadores who tried inevitably came to grief. While it’s based on the real-life Lope de Aguirre, a Spanish conquistadore with a fearsome reputation who went on a similar expedition up the Amazon river, the script—such as it is—is entirely a fabrication on Herzog’s part; yet, Herzog himself admits historical accuracy wasn’t the point.
Herzog doesn’t fuck around with a lot of narrative or characterization; his characters are archetypes, singular individuals dragged into a pointless expedition to a place that doesn’t exist, all in the name of the Spanish empire. Instead, he prefers to let his camera do the talking, painting the Amazon as a beautiful, lush, but ultimately hostile world, something the native populations know better than to fuck with, but try telling the conquistadores that. The titular Aguirre is a quietly insane beast of a man — played by the typically much more openly bonkers (and sexually deviant) Klaus Kinski — who has seized control of the expedition and, like the tyrant he desperately wishes to be, forces his subordinates, conquistadore and indigenous slave alike, to push ever onward, in spite of a mounting body count and dwindling supplies. Even the death of his daughter doesn’t deter him; instead, he announces himself king of New Spain and declares that he’ll marry his daughter (who, I remind you, is dead) and start a dynasty.
The film ends there. Where else could it end? It’s not like El Dorado exists. It’s a little under two hours of watching Aguirre brutalize people, and they in turn brutalize each other, as they work their way deeper and deeper into a jungle that cares not for their suffering. While Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now and Spec Ops: The Line all feature a tyrannical madman (ostensibly, anyway, in the case of The Line) at the far end of the journey, in Herzog’s film Aguirre is the tyrannical madman, a deranged Mr. Kurtz who will drag everyone down to hell with him. Everyone innocent is destroyed: Aguirre’s daughter Flore, shot by an arrow; the nominal expedition commander’s mistress Inez, who disappears into the jungle without a trace; and Rumo Rimac, the only named native character, once an Incan prince but now just a slave with a Christian name imposed upon him.
In the end, this is what imperialism is about: building an empire on the backs of the innocent in a lust for gold and territory. Empire doesn’t care who it destroys, even if the people it crushes underfoot work in its service. Any possibility of increasing wealth must be explored, no matter how fantastical, no matter how absurd. A lost city of gold? It must be found and looted, and if it’s not real, it’s not the fault of empire, but of those empire tasks with finding it. And empire is a virus, a disease that infects peoples’ brains and makes them think that they, too, can build an empire, that they can own the world. We can see this kind of thinking in today’s hustle and grind culture, a belief that if you’re not a capitalist, you’re not trying hard enough, that anyone can be a multi-billionare if you would just put the work in.
I can’t really recommend Aguirre; it’s a slow burn with little flash, a long, deliberate journey to nowhere with characters you can’t really get invested in because they barely exist and then they’re gone. It mostly stands out for the shots that Apocalypse Now would, six years later, lift wholesale, and for the surprisingly understated performance by Kinski.
Still, though, what it offers to the body of post-colonialist commentary is a grim parable of the self-destructive qualities of empire, of how men are destroyed as much by a world they cannot hope to conquer as they are by their own insistence that it be conquered.