Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who works on a grande scale. You can watch Jim's favorite documentary, Burden of Dreams to see what I mean, or just take the opening sequence of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Working with the inherent drama of extreme natural environments to create awe inspiring images that must be demanding on all involved is Herzog's greatest feat and the film opens up with series of long shots tracking a party of conquistadors clad in heavy armor winding their way down a steep and majestic mountain path hauling massive canons and reluctant animals while slaves cautiously maneuver noble ladies in sedan chairs.
After the descent, it becomes clear to all involved that the journey towards the fabled city of El Dorado is not going well so forty particularly handy men are sent down-river to find food or information about the city's whereabouts, both of which, the mission commander explains with full confidence, are near at hand. A nobleman called Pedro de Ursua is chosen as the leader of this expedition and the crazed Aguirre is placed second in charge; against the commander's better judgement two women, Ursua's wife and Aguirre's daughter, will join them. Most amazingly, the commander's decision to create the scouting party is ratified through a crazily bureaucratic series of signatures and seals, a testament to the deluded Spaniards' mental state.
A classic piece of man versus nature (for all you high school English teachers out there) ensues and Herzog's favorite twin motifs, the callousness of nature and the cruelty man, become evident fast; to call the expedition a catastrophe might even be an understatement. The men are in a struggle to conquer. Not only in a traditional sense but through their strange insistence on paperwork, titles, and legal proceeding that carry no real meaning in the deepest, darkest jungles of Peru. Between the rapids, dangerous indigenous tribesmen, and hunger, an anarchic coup led by a maniac is just another hardship.
Klaus Kinski, in the first of several collaborations with the director, does what he was born to do: embodying a deluded and aggressive mad man more convincingly than any other screen actor ever has. Nothing however, even Kinski's crazy eyed performance is unrealistically over the top, this is a subtle and almost detached film with minimal dialogue that works wonderfully as a realistic portrayal of incidents that, though imagined, are the kind often only found in the dry pages of history books. Herzog makes the past feel genuinely alive, as if we're experiencing the events first hand. Water droplets are left on the lens and actors even stare at times directly into the camera as if they are looking at you.
The soundtrack, by Krautrock band Popol Vul, is effective and the costumes are fantastic. Designers could dive into the studding, high lace collars and the exquisite use of purple in the conquistadors' shirts and literally build an entire collection around them. Like all of Herzog's work, the film is visually arresting, and the final scene with the monkeys on the raft is particularly haunting.
Considered one of the best art films ever made, this masterpiece earned a cult following and a respected reputation upon its premiere. Jim's been intrigued since a very young age when he read a plot summary in a Leonard Maltin encyclopedia that told of a conquistador who, searching for El Dorado, instead decides to steal the entire continent – it was a concept that blew him away.