A film-antidote to the idealized idea of the conquistador, Werner Herzog’s 1972 Aguirre, Wrath of God, as brutal and visceral as it is, the movie nonetheless presents us with an insightful vision of both positive and negative sides of paradise and European madness over it.
Intellectuals from the Northern Hemisphere have always been fascinated by how the other half bear their existences. Classic fictional works like Joseph Conrad’s 1899 Heart of Darkness, Werner Herzog’s 1972 Aguirre, Wrath of God [Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes] and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now share key conceptual points that shed some light on how the rich see the rest of the world. The search for paradise lost – by itself a worrying and naïve quest! – usually follows mad men on boats facing up to mighty rivers…
In 1560, somewhere in the Inca Empire, Spanish conquistadores and indigenous slaves march down a mountain in search of the mythical city of El Dorado. Before the party extinguishes their supplies, main commander Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés) orders a group of forty men down a river to check what lies ahead. The main individuals in the expedition are top dog Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) and his mistress Doña Inés (Helena Rojo), second-in-command Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) and his teenage daughter Florés (Cecilia Rivera), Don Fernando de Guzmán (Peter Berling) and priest Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro). At first chance, Aguirre shots Ursúa and usurps power for himself. He then leads the expedition to their death when, at the end, they are attacked by poisoned arrows.
Aguirre represents not only ambitious people of various persuasions or the power of greed that builds empires, but also the mad determination of genius visionaries. The negative energy that kills and destroys and has its origins in pathological behaviour can also be directed towards creative endeavours. This inherent ambiguous dissatisfaction within the human soul – that propels mankind outwardly; to check what’s outside the village, beyond the mountains, at the end of the oceans or out there, in space – is good for us, even though it can corrode a person’s mind. And Aguirre’s mind is definitely not in the right place. Propelled by such primordial forces and blinded by misplaced pride, at the end of the film, Aguirre’s conquered kingdom is a raft overrun by monkeys.
..A Journey into the Heart of Darkness… or is it the Darkness of Man?
Like all conquistadores before him, Aguirre feels entitled to claim every piece of land (or river, for that matter!) for which he passes as if his mere presence validates such deeds. This utterly, undisguised arrogance – a misguided sense of divine right and a contempt for ‘the other’ that tries to justify the intolerable – showcases the madness of the enterprise. Aguirre intends to rob the natives of their land as much as he steals the command of the mission for himself – with violence and the threat of it. The men that accompany him on the insane journey into the heart of darkness feel compelled to stay put through their fear of death. How does one found a new community with such weak foundations?
By the end of the film, with all the crew members dead and his daughter dying from a poisoned arrow, Aguirre – madder than ever – still dreams of a new beginning: 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 Cortés. 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?
I reproduce here a large chunk of Aguirre’s monologue because it really sums up the schizophrenic nature of colonization. It is because of mad men like him, with bold dreams of conquest and great delusions of grandeur that today vast parts of the globe speak Indo-European languages. Exactly 500 years ago, Thomas More’s Utopia was published in 1516, describing a supposedly perfect society in the New World as a form of critique of European mores. Thus to start afresh seems very old indeed. And yet Man does not get the paradox of conquering paradise with brute force, tainting the purity of the place with the blood of the natives.
Instead of ruling the entire continent, Aguirre is left with a dead crew, little monkeys and solitude. Surrounding him, endless expanses of green and lush vegetation only aggravates his sense of powerlessness. He went there to conquer all and ended up being conquered (or more precisely, devoured) by his own insane and greedy soul. On a geopolitical level, perhaps in egocentric terms, the legacy of empires is justified by pure results, for the nations that set sail, located unknown lands and pillaged these foreign places gained immensely from the deed. Not the same can be said of the individuals involved in such enterprises.
Hypnotic in tone and with a brutal message at its core, to us, cinema lovers, Aguirre, Wrath of God is itself the golden city of El Dorado – a treasure trove of moods, images, sounds and meanings.