Deep in the Amazon, in the 16th century, Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) and his fellow conquistadors find themselves at the mercy to his increasingly cruel and inhospitable leadership. Through the lens of the inimitable Werner Herzog, the journey of this man and his unwilling concubines becomes a slow and grueling descent into their own bizarre damnation.
Not that the rag-tag of army leaders, their wives and daughters, and their accompanying slaves had a chance to end up at any other conclusion. As it goes, Aguirre and his group were once part of a much larger Spanish expedition throughout South America, conquering the locals through forced religious conversion (and not much else as anything but conversion meant a brutal death). In retaliation, as Herzog notes in the film’s opening scrawl, the locals created the myth of the infamous “El Dorado”, a city of opulent riches and glory for any who fall upon it. Never one to turn down an opportunity to conquer shit, Aguirre’s expedition leader Gonzalo Pizzaro (Alejandro Repulles) takes on the task, with Aguirre and hundreds of other in tow. However, the expedition severely underestimates the physical and mental toll of the journey leading to Pizarro to create a new unit to move further along the Amazon River and scout ahead with the luscious head of hair that is Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) leading this new makeshift unit. As the expedition heads out, with time and nature against them, the struggle for power slowly overwhelms the group with the cynical Aguirre at the head of the conflict, a man willing to do anything to reach The City of Gold.
A timeless tale of madness in a foreign land, AGUIRRE is a much more methodical look at one man’s descent into power corrupted depravity. Indeed, from the opening shot, depicting literally hundreds of extras hauling equipment, horses, chickens and carriages and more down the narrow paths of the Andes Mountains, the viewer quickly learns that Herzog is filmmaker more than keen on getting dirty for the sake of realistic depiction. Shot fully on location, Herzog’s film fully immerses the viewers in the everyday minutiae and dangers that faced our doomed expedition with everything from soldiers standing guard on the banks of the river to rollicking scenes set on rickety rafts as the amble their way down the merciless and turbulent waters. Purely on production, Herzog and co.’s film soars above its peers, both past and present. If the stories of what happened when the camera wasn’t rolling were to believed, one could make a movie based on just the insane and frenetic production itself.
Story wise, you’ve seen this before. Expedition goes wrong. People go crazy. People proceed to act like shitheads in one way or another (moreso Aguirre). Even so, the film holds some surprises in the way that the story is told as we seemingly float from one event to another, guided by the scribbled thoughts of Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro). As the story and its characters trudge, so too does the audience as Herzog allows for immersive experience to take over for character depth. Indeed, outside of Kinski’s performance, which displays glory-minded ego masking inner malevolence, most of the other characters (and their respective performances) feel more like harrowed shells. Who could blame them after all, as they find themselves at the mercy of a increasingly crazed man, what else is there to do except trudge along in silent and reserved agony? When the film does near its conclusion, events have slowly become more surreal (maybe due to the result of our character’s deteriorating inner mindset or maybe some real magic held within the forest) that the film’s muted but nonetheless memorable end sticks with you. For Herzog, there is no glory in the conquering of lands only a small, uneventful death at the hands of Mother Nature.
With AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD, audiences are offered as close of a glimpse into the perils of jungle travel by way of madness as one can get. While the film, despite its 90-minute runtime, hits some lulls due to a fair share of some static nature shots and other events of downtime, the end result is something that holds a strange power of intrigue and determination, much like the title character himself.