Director: Werner Herzog
Starring: Klaus Kinski
Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God is kind of like what Apocalypse Now would be like if you took that long river journey with Kurtz instead of Willard. That Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) is mad is a matter of course, but he’s only as mad as the task to which he has been assigned. With this tale of a fruitless search for the fabled El Dorado, Herzog creates a haunting and thoroughly engrossing cinematic experience.
The film begins with a great shot of Spanish conquistadors and their slaves winding their way down a mountain and into the Amazon jungle. The insanity of this expedition is immediately apparent: not only are the Spanish conquerors woefully ill-equipped for the climate with their heavy armour, they’ve also brought horses and canons and women in sedan chairs along for the ride. Eventually the expedition stops. To carry on through the jungle any longer would be foolish (though, honestly, I don’t think trying to go back would be very appealing either) so a camp will be made and a smaller group will be sent ahead on rafts down the Amazon to find the city of gold. Ursura (Ruy Guerra) will lead the group with Aguirre as his second in command. Ursura’s wife (Helena Rojo) and Aguirre’s daughter (Cecilia Rivera) join them as they set off on four unenviable rafts that are no match for the mighty river.
After travelling a few miles, the journey is temporarily suspended when one of the rafts gets stuck in an eddy. The men on the other three rafts set up camp on the shore and try to figure out what they can do to help, though Aguirre knows that the men are goners and says as much. One of the film's great sequences shows the doomed men struggling to free their raft, going back and forth as day becomes night, getting absolutely nowhere. In the middle of the night, the men on shore see and hear the guns from the raft firing. In the morning, all the men on the raft are dead. The questions that a sequence like this raises are necessary to one of the film's central conflicts: the struggle between the known terror (Aguirre) and the unknown terror (the Indians in the jungle, never seen, but always there, waiting). Shortly after the loss of the first raft, the other three are carried away when the river rises during the night. Ursura declares that they will march back through the jungle and rejoin the original group. Aguirre, however, wants to build new rafts and stages a mutiny so that the journey can carry on towards its ultimate and inevitable destruction.
Central and essential to the film is Klaus Kinski’s performance as Aguirre. He is clearly dangerous – everyone seems to know it – and yet he possesses a kind of mad charisma that makes people willing to follow him. He has a commanding presence – when he proclaims that he is the wrath of God, you believe it. He walks with a limp and often stands at a slight angle, slanting a little as if to suggest that he’s as bent physically as he is mentally. He’s different than all the rest and it's no surprise when he’s the only one left standing, still planning how he’ll conquer the world in the film’s final, grotesque moments.
The important thing to understand about the film is that as insane as Aguirre is, he’s no more insane than the mission itself. At one point one of the Indian slaves states that he feels sorry for the Spanish because they’re never going to get out of the jungle – going further into the Amazon would be death, going back out of the Amazon would be death. Like the crew of the raft that gets stuck in an eddy, they’re all trapped and destined to die, dragging horses and enormous, rusting canons with them. It’s a foolish undertaking, and perhaps the only thing that’s more foolish is bringing a film crew on location into the Amazon to recreate it, floating on a raft of your own in order to capture it – but that’s exactly what Herzog did, and the realism that is the result of his staggering ambition adds immeasurably to the film’s power.