The following is adapted from a review by noted critic Roger Ebert, who listed the film in his all-time top ten:
One of the great haunting visions of the cinema, Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1973) tells the story of the doomed expedition of the conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro, who in 1560 and 1561 led a body of men into the Peruvian rain forest, lured by stories of the lost city.
The opening shot is a striking image: A long line of men snakes its way down a steep path to a valley far below, while clouds of mist obscure the peaks. These men wear steel helmets and breastplates, and carry their women in enclosed sedan-chairs. They are dressed for a court pageant, not for the jungle.
The music sets the tone. It is haunting, ecclesiastical, human and yet something else. For this opening sequence, Herzog used a strange instrument which 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.
Herzog’s film concludes in the creation of a mood within us – a spiritual or visionary feeling. He wants his audiences to feel like detached observers, standing outside time, saddened by the immensity of the universe as it bears down on the dreams and delusions of man.
If the music is crucial to “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” so is the face of Klaus Kinski. He has haunted blue eyes and wide, thick lips that would look sensual if they were not pulled back in the rictus of madness.
Here Kinski plays the strongest-willed of the conquistadors. Herzog says that when he as a youth in Germany saw Kinski for the first time, “at that moment I knew it was my destiny to make films, and his to act in them.”
When Pizarro fears that his expedition is a folly, he selects a small party to spend a week exploring farther up-river. If they find nothing, he says, the attempt will be abandoned. This smaller party is led by the aristocrat Don Pedro de Ursua, with Aguirre (Kinski) as his second in command.
Also in the party, along with soldiers and slaves, are a priest, Gaspar de Carvajal; the fatuous nobleman Fernando de Guzman; Ursua’s wife, Flores; Aguirre’s daughter Inez, and a slave named Okello, who sadly tells one of the women, “I was born a prince, and men were forbidden to look on me. Now I am in chains.”
Herzog does not hurry their journey, or fill it with artificial episodes of suspense and action. What we feel above all is the immensity of the river and the surrounding forest – which offers no shore to stand on because the waters have risen and flooded it.
Consider how Herzog handles an early crisis, when one of the rafts is caught in a whirlpool. The slaves row furiously, but the raft cannot move. Herzog’s camera stays across the river from the endangered rafters; their distress seems distant and insoluble. Aguirre contemptuously dismisses any attempt to rescue them, but a party is sent out to try to reach them from the other side. In the morning, the raft still floats in place; everyone on it is dead.
Aguirre rules with a reign of terror. He stalks about the raft with a curious lopsided gait, as if one of his knees will not bend. There is madness in his eyes.
Death occurs mostly offscreen in the film, or swiftly and silently, as arrows fly softly out of the jungle and into the necks and backs of the men. The film’s final images are among the most memorable ever seen on film.
The filming of “Aguirre” is a legend in film circles. Herzog, a German director who speaks of the “voodoo of location,” took his actors and crew into a remote jungle district where fever was frequent and starvation seemed like a possibility. The actors, crew members and cameras were all actually on rafts like those we see.
The film is not driven by dialogue, or even by the characters, except for Aguirre, whose personality is created as much by Kinski’s face and body as by words. What Herzog sees in the story is what he finds in many of his films: Men haunted by a vision of great achievement, who commit the sin of pride by daring to reach for it, and are crushed by an implacable universe.
Of modern filmmakers, Werner Herzog is the most visionary and the most obsessed with great themes. Little wonder that he has directed many operas. He does not want to tell a plotted story or record amusing dialog; he wants to lift us up into realms of wonder.
Only a handful of modern films such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Apocalypse Now” share the audacity of Herzog’s vision. They cannot be bothered with conventional success because they reach for transcendence.