I felt like something different, and this deeply strange and haunting 1972 film by Werner Herzog about the doomed 16th-century expedition into the Peruvian rain forest definitely hit the spot. It’s the kind of film that you’re never sure you liked in the conventional sense, but one that gets under your skin.
I won’t spoil the demented imagery of the film’s ending, but the opening shot is just as striking: a long trail of men descending down the steep path in the misty Andes mountains, looking as small and insignificant as ants. Among them are Spanish conquistadors in their distinctive helmets and breastplates, Peruvian slaves in their colourful garb, and, rather shockingly, women carried in covered sedan chairs, dressed as if for court complete with the stiff white collars. The men are under the command of Gonzalo Pizarro, a Spanish conquistador who was lured by the stories of riches in the fabled city of gold, El Dorado.
After weeks of trudging through the jungle mud and supplies running low, Pizarro decides to change up the tactics, and selects a small party to venture out and explore by raft further down the river. If they’re not back within a week, they’ll be considered lost. For the command, Pizarro chooses Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) and Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as his second. There’s also a rather useless nobleman representing the Spanish royalty, a priest to bring the word of God to the heathens, and two women, Aguirre’s teenage daughter and Ursúa’s mistress.
I’ve always been drawn to the stories of ill-fated expeditions, whether they’re set in the frozen planes of the Arctic or the humid Amazon jungle. There’s something sobering about the accounts of men perishing amidst the indifferent and implacable nature they foolishly had hoped to overcome. Aguirre is an epic tale of folly, delusion and greed: when the scouting party’s time is running out and Ursúa decides to turn back, Aguirre fires up the men by reminding them that Cortez won his Mexican empire by disobeying his orders. Aguirre is clearly unhinged, but his words arouse the same obsessions in the hearts of men and his mutiny is successful. It’s not really a spoiler to say that the would-be empire builders go on towards their doom, succumbing to the Amazon and their own base impulses.
Aguirre himself is probably the most memorable visual in a film full of them. With a face cut out of granite and huge, haunted blue eyes blazing from beneath the steel helmet, he can be imposing and unnerving just by staying still. At one point, he seems to look directly into the camera, and his gaze has such intensity and madness you want to look away. He doesn’t walk, he stalks the raft. Not particularly tall and suffering what looks like a limp, he nonetheless rules the men through terror, only softening for his daughter in rare moments of tenderness. I’ve never seen Klaus Kinski onscreen before, and he sure had presence.
Aguirre is shot in a matter-of-fact, almost documentary-like manner, with occasional droplets of rain on the camera lens. The narration of excerpts from the priest’s journal (based on real historical records) mark off the days and add to the ever-growing sense of impending disaster. At the same time, the film has an ethereal feeling of a dream, or rather a nightmare, enhanced by the eerie and unsettling choir-like score. There’s a strange disconnect between the terrible privations and violence suffered and inflicted by the men, and the languid serenity of their natural surroundings, the lush rain forest, the blue sky above their heads and the lazy river. When death comes, more often than not it comes in the shape of swift and silent poisoned arrows shot by the local tribes.
Not out to please, Aguirre is clearly the work of a singular, uncompromising vision and quite unlike anything I’ve seen before, which is something to be treasured.