I am giving two lessons about Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Werner Herzog, 1972) at the University of Leuven.
Even though I know this film by heart, it remains a wonderful cinematic experience.
Herzog himself told repeatedly that he invented nearly the whole story, but there are more historic sources in this film than he claims. He based the movie upon a short description in a children’s book of two expeditions in search of El Dorado. One is an expedition led by Gonzalo Pizarro in 1541, the other by Pedro de Ursúa in 1560.
Herzog uses a lot of elements out of the diary of the monk Gaspar de Carjaval, who accompanied the expedition of 1541.
The historic figure of Lope de Aguirre was part of the 1960 expedition and elements of his rebellion in the film are based upon the children’s book and some historic letters and declarations by Aguirre.
Next to these elements, Herzog enriches the film with lots of imagination and other references. As such, he creates his own patchwork that still gives a nice impression of expeditions of conquistadores in search of El Dorado.
One of these other references, is the influence of speeches by John Okello on Aguirre’s words in the film. John Okello was an East African revolutionary and the leader of the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964. During his short rebellion, he made furious radio broadcasts with texts like:
We, the army, have the strength of 99 million, 99 thousand … Should anyone be stubborn and disobey orders, then I will take very strong measures, 88 times stronger than at present.
I was a very high ranking person in Kenya in the Mau Mau army which knows how to make weapons. I can easily make not less than 500 guns per day. Undoubtedly, I can make a bomb that can destroy an area of 3 square miles. I can make about 100 grenades in an hour.
(…)I am above the government and cannot die.
The influence on this speech by Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) at the near end of the movie is striking:
I am the great traitor. There must be no other. Anyone who even thinks about deserting this mission will be cut up into 198 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. The earth I pass will see me and tremble. But whoever follows me and the river, will win untold riches. But whoever deserts…