Content Warning: References to racism, murder, torture, and sexual abuse.
It’s easy to imagine yourself as a god. Fiction constantly invites you to do so; the best characters have agency, after all, and with more power comes more agency. In political thrillers, you’re invited to imagine how you would command a nation. In war stories, you’re invited to imagine how you would fare as the leader of a group of soldiers. In fantasies, you’re invited to imagine the kind of wondrous world you would create. What would you do if you had the power to remake the country, the world, the universe?
Did you learn about Greek mythology as a kid? How old were you when you realized that the gods were the bad guys in those stories? Did you ever consider, as a child, that an immortal being that creates a box full of evil and then blames a human woman for opening it might perhaps be the villain in that story? Greek mythology showed, over and over again, that gods are not to be trusted, that those who wield power will twist and destroy those who do not. We appease them with the sacrifices they desire not because we love them, but because they can make us suffer.
The year is 1561, and somewhere in the mountainous jungles of South America, a cannon has fallen over and exploded. Up until this point in Werner Herzog’s 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God, we have seen nothing but a procession of travelers trekking through the imposing wilderness of the Amazon. Ethereal, contemplative music accompanies them as they descend from the clouds. The scenery is impressive bordering on divine, but we are descending from the heavenly clouds to the profane earth, not the other way around. The reverie is broken by the cannon’s demise, as good a metaphor as any for the expedition as a whole.
The Spanish conquistadors, led by Gonzalo Pizarro, are ostensibly embarking on this journey to conquer more land for the Spanish crown, but everyone knows that these men are really here to look for the mythical El Dorado, the land of gold. The sweaty Europeans look ridiculous marching through the mud and hills in heavy leather and plate armor. Herzog doesn’t show them dying by the dozens to dysentery and other maladies, but you can imagine them doing so, and they certainly did in the real life expedition on which the movie is based.
Just like in the real life expedition, Pizarro orders a group of soldiers to split off from the main force and scout downriver. Among this group is the eponymous Lope de Aguirre, played by accused sexual abuser Klaus Kinski, Herzog’s best “fiend.” Kinski left a touring show to star in the film, a show where he had become known for screaming at audiences and collaborators even during shows. Kinski portrayed Jesus in that show, and he is doing much the same thing as Aguirre.
Lope de Aguirre thinks of himself as a future god-king. This is your first indication that he is meant to be loathed, but there are several other signs.
Aguirre’s skin isn’t just greasy, it’s unctuous. Aguirre doesn’t talk, he hisses. Aguirre doesn’t stand, he leans and sways at obtuse angles. Aguirre doesn’t walk, he saunters through the jungle in his awkward knee-high boots. The first time we see Aguirre, he is questioning his superior’s orders, the second, he is abusing enslaved indigenous people.
The film version of Aguirre spends the majority of the movie in the background. His face reveals very little emotion, and he doesn’t even interact with most of the other members of the expedition beyond one or two short conversations. And in every one of those conversations, he threatens, abuses, or appeals to the basest instincts of the other characters. He constantly presses his soldiers to push forward, to travel farther, to endure the hardships of the river so that they can reap the rewards of El Dorado. Any character not content to suffer and sacrifice for Aguirre’s vision is killed. Like so many, the only thing he can think to do with his power is get more and more creatively violent.
And Aguirre is powerful. An entirely new hierarchy is put in place after Aguirre leads his coup. Mutiny is declared against not just Gonzalo Pizarro, but all of Spain. A new puppet emperor of the empire of El Dorado is installed, and with him a new set of rules and protocols takes over the expedition. The men take to it easily; it is the same power dynamic they had before, just with new names. They know the only thing required of them is obeisance; the only thing they have to do to survive is sacrifice their own comfort and agency. Aguirre says El Dorado is just around the corner, can’t you endure just a bit longer?
Did you know that European “explorers” did actually find El Dorado? There is a misconception that El Dorado was just a widespread fantasy, but it had real-life origins. Originally, the words “el dorado,” which translate directly to “the golden one,” referred to a gilded man, not a gilded city. The indigenous Muisca people of the Altiplano Cundiboyacense in what is now known as Colombia had a particular initiation ceremony for their leaders, rumors of which drifted down to European colonizers. The Europeans already knew there was gold in South America, and being vapid, they already searched for some imagined motherlode hidden on the continent.
The ceremony supposedly consisted of the zipa, one of the three most important leaders of the Muisca, getting on a raft floating on Lake Guatavita. The zipa would be covered in gold dust, and heaped at his feet would be gold and jewels, which would end up sinking to the bottom of the lake. Naturally, upon hearing of this, Europeans tried to find both the Muisca leaders and Lake Guatavita.
Europeans set out all over South America to find El Dorado, dying by the hundreds (alongside indigenous people they attacked or enslaved) in doomed expeditions much like Lope de Aguirre’s. And a few of them found Lake Guatavita, the site of the original gilded man. Many different prospectors tried to pull the riches off the lake floor, with varying amounts of success. Over the next few hundred years, gold-seekers eventually managed to drain the lake and finally steal every piece of gold out of it. The sum total of wealth gained from these expeditions was worth a few thousand pesos, barely enough to pay for the expenses needed to rob the Muisca of their birthright.
Thus was the true El Dorado found and promptly ignored, because by that point the myth of El Dorado had far outpaced the reality. Europeans still searched and died for the imaginary El Dorado, even after the exploitation of Lake Guatavita, because surely it couldn’t be some mundane lake with a bit of gold at the bottom. Surely it had to be a city, a kingdom, an empire cast all in gold. Meanwhile, the indigenous peoples of South America were enslaved, tortured, and killed.
Klaus Kinski did not get to play Lope de Aguirre in the manner he wished. Kinski had a habit of inarticulately screaming, and he liked to play characters that did the same. He wanted Aguirre to rant and rave, but Herzog wanted a quieter performance and so would provoke Kinski before a take, only rolling cameras after Kinski tired himself out. In many ways, Herzog made this movie in spite of Kinski––Kinski commanded much of the budget, frequently had to be calmed down just so they could work for the day, and his voice even had to be dubbed over with someone else’s because he asked too much money to do simple ADR.
Lope de Aguirre really did exist, he really did mutiny against his leaders and the Spanish crown, and he really did kill his own men and the enslaved people on the expedition. He also killed his own daughter rather than let indigenous people near her, something they changed for the movie version. He was regarded as a symbol of madness and colonial brutality before Aguirre, the Wrath of God was ever made. Herzog’s only choice to play him was Klaus Kinski.
Only Kinski could do Aguirre justice, Herzog reasoned, based on the “trail of devastation” he’d seen Kinski leave behind him everywhere he went. In 1999’s My Best Fiend, a documentary Herzog made about their relationship, Herzog states that their particular madnesses had to mesh in order to create great art. Fourteen years after that film, more than twenty years after Kinski’s death, his daughter Pola published her autobiography, which detailed years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father.
So far as I could find online, Werner Herzog has never commented on these allegations.
Aguirre’s expedition has a resident priest by the name of Gaspar de Carvajal (played by Del Negro). After Aguirre’s coup leaves expedition leader Don Pedro de Ursúa wounded, Doña Inés (Ursúa’s mistress, played by Helena Rojo) turns to Carvajal and begs him for help. “You know, my child,” he responds, “for the good of our Lord, the Church was always on the side of the strong.” He is explaining why, in the face of violence and evil, he is content to do nothing.
Do you know how the Spanish conquistadors justified their barbaric treatment of the native peoples they encountered? It may surprise you to learn that there were debates on the subject back in Spain, as some were rightfully horrified by the violence inflicted. The most noteworthy of these was the Valladolid Debate, where a friar named Bartolomé de las Casas argued that the indigenous peoples should be treated as free men with just as much value as the European colonizers. Other Spanish thinkers countered this argument by saying that the South American peoples must be converted to Catholicism by any means necessary, including torture and murder, because they practiced savage rituals like human sacrifice.
That isn’t the real reason why they did the things they did, of course. You probably already know the real reason. But that is the reason they gave.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God ends in a scene of complete madness. Aguirre’s men die around him, but they mutter surreal dialogue about the fashionability of arrows and delude themselves into thinking they are not under attack. Carvajal tries to turn Aguirre back, to no avail, and he succumbs to the delusions as well. Aguirre begins to rant, telling of his love of power and his hatred of his own men. The raft drifts in circles; every man on it knows that it is doomed. One by one, every passenger is shot full of arrows until it’s just Aguirre left, talking to wildlife. But Aguirre is still the lord of that miserable little scrap of wood, and he makes a speech declaring his intention to steal lands from Spain and become an emperor ruling with his dead daughter as his queen. Even as he dies on the Amazon, he dreams of conquering the Caribbean.
Aguirre has finally used his power for the only purpose he knows: squashing those beneath him. It is important to remember that power did not go to his head; this is what he wanted from the beginning. He was always abusive, always used his position to hurt others. It is not a question of being corrupted by power or using power wisely; the desire for power is the problem in and of itself. And it’s so easy to imagine yourself as a god.
The only true sacrifice is the one made willingly, for others. Anyone with power who asks others to sacrifice for faith, politics, civility, survival, anyone who asks others to endure evil for the sake of comfort, beauty, or film should not be trusted. There will always be someone with more power than you, asking you to endure hardships. They say they want you to join them, but look at what they make you give. Look at what they expect you to be. Is it anything but a sacrifice on their altar?
“Who else is with me?” Aguirre demands of a raft full of corpses.