Aguiree (Klaus Kinski) and a Monkey

“That man is a head taller than me. That may change…”

I saw this film for the first time three and a half years ago in a theater for a class on world cinema. It was one of the most powerful cinematic experiences I have ever had. I re-watched it for the first time since then recently. It is still as good and doesn’t lose much moving from a theater to a computer screen.

After a largely made-up introduction about Pizarro, The Indians, and El Dorado; the film cuts to the long shot above of an unreal descent by Pizarro’s expedition to the Amazon jungle below. There, Pizarro breaks off part of the expedition and sends them down the river in rafts with an aristocrat named Ursua in command and Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as his second in command.

It doesn’t take long before Aguirre makes it clear that he is running things even if another appears to be in power when he shoots Ursua who wants to turn back. What follows is a descent into obsessive madness that slowly takes one life after another. Kinski moves like a hunchback that sometimes shows his obsession with his face and other times it explodes into violence.

Kinski Nearly Killed An Extra In This Scene

As Aguiree’s party dwindles, the madness takes a greater and greater hold on them leading one of the ladies to just walk into the jungle and others to lose all touch with reality. They even go so far as to write a declaration of independence from Spain, complete with an emperor. Director Werner Herzog switches between a realist camera to a highly stylized one and back, giving things an ethereal quality. By the time we reach the boat in the tree it doesn’t seem at all out of place.

Herzog made this film on a very small budget with a good amount of improvisation and a fair amount of luck. Several of the best scenes were happening by accident in reality so they picked up the camera, shot it on the spot, and put it in the film. An example is when the roof is torn off the sedan chair on the raft by a passing branch.

You have to watch this film without interruptions because Herzog won’t give you any interruptions. You are meant to be constantly pulled slowly down the river, further into the jungle, and into deeper into the minds of Aguirre and the others aboard. To be swallowed up in your chair by the film.

This is easily the best film Herzog will ever make and Kinski was as dangerous and difficult on the set as ever, but incredible on camera. You can read all you want about this film, but you have to experience it for yourself. I can’t give it any higher a recommendation.