During a particularly rowdy night of production, Klaus Kinski, irritated by the noise from a hut where cast and crew were playing cards, repeatedly fired a Winchester rifle into it. One of the bullets took the tip of an unnamed extra's finger off. Werner Herzog immediately confiscated the weapon and it remains his property to this day.
Many of the scenes depicted in the film were unrehearsed and unstaged, and the dividing line between the cast acting in character and simply reacting to their situations as people became very blurry. For example, in one of the opening scenes, when the carriage holding Aguirre's daughter tips over and threatens to collapse, a hand comes in from the right side of the frame to assist the actors in steadying their hold. That hand belongs to director Werner Herzog.
Werner Herzog talks about in his commentary how he had to manipulate star Klaus Kinski into getting the performance he wanted in the films they worked on together. For example, Kinski wanted to express Aguirre's madness at the end of the film through very loud shouting and be very obvious. Herzog had him do this for an hour and a half until Kinski grew tired and couldn't perform that way. So he was very quiet and much more contained, which is the performance that exists in the film's ending.
Werner Herzog claims to have written the screenplay in two and a half days. He wrote a good portion of it while traveling with his soccer team, during games and on bus rides. Following one game, the team was very drunk, and the player seated behind Herzog vomited on his typewriter, ruining many pages of the script. Herzog was unable to salvage the pages, and tossed them out the window. He was also unable to recall what he'd written on them.
The monkeys that appear at the end of the film were somewhat difficult to acquire. According to Werner Herzog's commentary, he paid the men who were to provide them only half of what they asked for, as he didn't trust them and thought they would try to run off with the money without providing the monkeys. He was proved right, as they had sold the monkeys to someone else and they were to be flown to Florida. In desperation, Herzog pretended he was the veterinarian and that the monkeys didn't have their vaccination documents, which allowed him to finally get the monkeys and film their scenes. After this, all the monkeys were set free into the wild.
The film was originally shot in English, the only language skills that all of the multi-national crew and cast members had in common. The original production sound was recorded on location, but finally not used because of its poor quality. The whole film was later post-synchronized into German. Director Werner Herzog claims that lead actor Klaus Kinski demanded too much money for the recording sessions and therefore another actor with a similar voice, Gerd Martienzen, dubbed him. Even audiences that have seen other performances of Kinski often can't tell the difference.
According to Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski threatened to abandon the film entirely at one point during the shooting over Herzog's refusal to fire a sound assistant. Herzog says he threatened to kill Kinski and then turn the gun on himself if Kinski left - and later declared he was quite prepared to do so, knowing that the authorities would write it off as a hunting accident. Kinski stated in interviews that Herzog wielded a pistol to emphasize the threat, but Herzog denies this.
This film, as well as several other early films by Werner Herzog, were shot on a 35mm camera that he stole as a young man from the Munich Film School, a predecessor to today's prestigious film school 'HFF München'. Herzog himself never was a film student there or anywhere. He readily admits to the theft but also justifies it with the significance of the films he's made with the camera and his right to artistic expression: "It was a very simple 35mm camera, one I used on many other films, so I do not consider it a theft. For me, it was truly a necessity. I wanted to make films and needed a camera. I had some sort of natural right to this tool. If you need air to breathe, and you are locked in a room, you have to take a chisel and hammer and break down a wall. It is your absolute right."[Cronin, 2003]
Near the end of the shooting, Werner Herzog thought he had lost all the negatives that the film was shot on. He later discovered that the shipping agency at the Lima airport had completed all paperwork that accompanied the transportation of the film cans, but had not actually shipped them. The cans were thought lost for several weeks before the oversight was revealed.
Werner Herzog's first choice for the role of Aguirre was Klaus Kinski. The two had met many years earlier when the then-struggling young actor rented a room in Herzog's family apartment, and Kinski's often terrifying and deranged antics during the three months he lived there left a lasting impression on the director. Years later, Herzog remembered the volatile actor and knew that he was the only possible man who could play the mad Aguirre, and he sent Kinski a copy of the screenplay. "Between three and four in the morning, the phone rang," Herzog recalled. "It took me at least a couple of minutes before I realized that it was Kinski who was the source of this inarticulate screaming. And after an hour of this, it dawned on me that he found it the most fascinating screenplay and wanted to be Aguirre."
Werner Herzog was attacked by fire ants when he was chopping a tree branch with his machete. He didn't cut it down completely, so the ants poured down on him and bit him "about 150 times". As a result, he got a bad fever.
Because of the remote filming locations and limited funds, there were times when Werner Herzog himself had to trade his wristwatch and even his boots just to have food for the day. Mentioned in his commentary.
The finale is significantly different from Werner Herzog's original script. The director recalled, "I only remember that the end of the film was totally different. The end was actually the raft going out into the open ocean and being swept back inland, because for many miles you have a counter-current, the Amazon actually goes backwards. And it was tossed to and fro. And a parrot would scream: "El Dorado, El Dorado"..."
In 1971, while Werner Herzog was location scouting for the film in Peru, he narrowly avoided taking LANSA Flight 508. Herzog's reservation was cancelled due to a last-minute change in itinerary. The plane was later struck by lightning and disintegrated, but one survivor lived after a free fall. Long haunted by the event, nearly 30 years later he made a documentary film Julianes Sturz in den Dschungel (2000) about it, which explored the story of the sole survivor Juliane Koepcke.
The low budget precluded the use of stunt men or elaborate special effects. The cast and crew climbed up mountains, hacked through thick jungle, and rode ferocious Amazonian river rapids on rafts built by natives. At one point, a storm caused a river to flood, covering the film sets in several feet of water and destroying all the rafts built for the film. This flooding was immediately incorporated into the story, as a sequence including a flood and subsequent rebuilding of rafts was shot.
The idea for the film began when Werner Herzog borrowed a book on historical adventurers from a friend. After reading a half-page devoted to Lope de Aguirre, the filmmaker became inspired and immediately devised the story. He fabricated most of the plot details and characters, although he did use some historical figures in purely fictitious ways.
In the DVD Commentary, Werner Herzog reveals that the ship in the trees originally was part of a subplot that was dropped in the course of filming. It was intended to be a real ship, not a hallucination. He has not explained how the ship came up there.
Klaus Kinski's crazed performance bore similarities to the real Aguirre, a "true homicidal megalomaniac". Many of his fellow soldiers considered his actions to be that of a madman. Kinski's use of a limp reflected one that Aguirre actually had, the result of a battle injury. Aguirre's frequent short but impassioned speeches to his men in the film were accurately based on the man's noted "simple but effective rhetorical ability."
Werner Herzog explained how the choir-like sound was created, "We used a strange instrument, which we called a 'choir-organ.' It has inside it three dozen different tapes running parallel to each other in loops. ... All these tapes are running at the same time, and there is a keyboard on which you can play them like an organ so that [it will] sound just like a human choir but yet, at the same time, very artificial and really quite eerie." This was almost certainly a Mellotron and probably the 1970-introduced M400 model (which had 35 keys), the staple of early-70's progressive rock.
The screenplay was shot as written, with some minor differences. In an early scene in which Pizarro instructs Ursúa to lead the scouting team down the river, in the script Pizarro mentions that in the course of the expedition Ursúa could possibly discover what happened to Francisco de Orellana's expedition, which had vanished without a trace years before (see "Historical Accuracy" section). Later in the screenplay, Aguirre and his men find a boat and the long-dead remains of Orellana's soldiers. Further down the river, they discover another ship lodged in some tree tops. In the screenplay, Aguirre and others explore the boat but find no sign of Orellana or his men. Werner Herzog ultimately eliminated any such references to Orellana's expedition from the film. The sequence with the boat caught in the upper branches of a tree remains, but as filmed it seems to be simply a hallucinatory vision.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Although plot details and many of the characters in "Aguirre, the Wrath of God"(1972) come directly from Werner Herzog's own imagination, historians have pointed out that the film fairly accurately incorporates some 16th-century events and historical personages into a fictional narrative. The film's major characters, Aguirre, Ursúa, Don Fernando, Inez and Florés, were indeed involved in a 1560 expedition that left Peru to find the city of El Dorado. Commissioned by Peru's governor, Ursúa organized an expeditionary group of 300 men to travel by way of the Amazon River. He was accompanied by his mixed-race mistress, Doña Inez. At one point during the journey, Aguirre, a professional soldier, decided that he could use the 300 men to overthrow the Spanish rule of Peru. Aguirre had Ursúa murdered and proclaimed Fernando as "The Prince of Peru". Fernando himself was eventually murdered when he questioned Aguirre's scheme of sailing to the Atlantic, conquering Panama, crossing the isthmus and invading Peru. Many others who attempted to rebel against Aguirre were also killed. The surviving soldiers conquered Isla Margarita off the coast of Venezuela and made preparations to attack the mainland. However, by that time Spanish authorities had learned of Aguirre's plans, and when the rebels arrived in Venezuela, government agents offered full pardons to Aguirre's men. All of them accepted the deal. Immediately prior to his arrest, Aguirre murdered his daughter Florés, who had remained by his side during the entire journey. He was then captured and dismembered. Herzog's screenplay merged this 1560 expedition with the events of an earlier Amazonian journey, that took place in 1541 and 1542. Like Ursúa, Gonzalo Pizarro and his men entered the Amazon basin in search of El Dorado. Various troubles afflicted the expedition and, sure that El Dorado was very close, Pizarro set up a smaller group led by Francisco de Orellana to break off from the main force and forge ahead, then return with news of what they had found. This group utilized a brigantine to journey down the river. Accompanying Orellana was Spanish Dominican friar Gaspar de Carvajal, who kept a journal of the group's experiences. The historic Gaspar de Carvajal (1500-1584) had settled in Peru and dedicated himself to the conversion of the Indians. While Carvajal's diary does indeed exist, the content as presented in the film is mostly invented by writer/director Herzog himself.