You’re a Spaniard. A Conquistador. You’re in the New World, in what will be known as South America. You’ve been rampaging this foreign land, slaughtering the Inca empire, greedily appropriating their riches. But is that enough? No, you want more, and when some Indians tell you about a mysterious city of gold, El Dorado, you know you won’t rest until you find it and make it yours. You’re not alone, dozens of soldiers go along with you, as do a priest (savages must be converted to the word of God after all), noblemen and even a few women, including your own 15 year old daughter.
You’ve crossed the Andes, you’ve walked deep into the jungle, and now you’re drifting down the Amazon river on a raft… The sun is scorching, the waters unpredictable. Food is scarce, disease is rampant. Fever and hallucinations take a hold of everyone. And then there’s those pesky Indians and their arrows, shooting out of the silence and killing the men around you one by one. But you’re still determined to get to El Dorado, dead or alive.
You are Aguirre. You are the Wrath of God.
“Aguirre, The Wrath of God” is an amazing film, as brutal as it is lyrical. One could deem it uneventful or aimless or slow, but that’d be reading it wrong. This isn’t a movie about plot twists, complex relationships or over the top action. It’s almost like cinéma vérité, as if you had a 35mm camera in 1561 and you followed Spanish soldiers into the Peruvian rainforest, recording the expedition as it drifts through the immensity of nature and the pettiness of man, with the river and the animals and the jungle playing as important a part as the human characters.
But more than just a literal documentary snapshot, this is also a film which embraces the growing insanity which takes over the men in general and Aguirre in particular. This is a chaotic, visually stunning, haunting film, kind of like a 16th century Apocalypse Now, with a riveting Klaus Kinski as a driven madman who’s like both Capt. Willard and Col. Kurtz rolled into one.
And, like Coppola, Werner Herzog went off the deep end to make his film, which was as crazed a venture as that of its protagonists. The cast and crew actually went into the heart of the Amazon jungle, spending days on rafts, coping with the heat, isolation and fever. It’s been told that Kinski himself lost his mind and wanted to leave but Herzog pulled a gun on him and forced him to finish the film!
The word tends to be thrown around too often, but “Aguirre, The Wrath of God” is truly a masterpiece, out of thought and time and into transcendent genius.