In the 16th Century, Spanish conquistadors invade South America; one legion sets out to look for the fabled land of El Dorado, where gold is said to be abundant. But on the way there is a mutiny led by Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) which sets the expedition on a course to disaster...
This fascinating, haunting, yet absurd historical drama was written by the director Werner Herzog, and was the first of the memorable collaborations between him and his star Kinski. The film has the look of a documentary shot hundreds of years ago, with a vivid sense of place; when you know the cast and crew were undergoing almost as much hardship as the characters, it seems all the more incredible that it was ever finished, never mind that the unstable relationship between Herzog and Kinski had them at each others' throats, and not for the only time.
The beautiful but deadly rainforest provides the menacing backdrop for the action. At first, Aguirre (Kinski is ideally cast) comes across as shrewd and manipulative, but as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that he is insane, and leading his men into a deathtrap. He has grand plans to rule the continent, but, er, also wishes to create a master race by impregnating his own teenage daughter.
The Spaniards try to hold onto what vestiges of civilisation they have left by electing a ruler (under the guidance of Aguirre, of course), and holding trials. The monk who accompanies the party is keen to enforce the Christian morals of their society, but this, like everything else they bring to the jungle, becomes increasingly pathetic in the face of the cruel indifference of their environment.
If you have a sick sense of humour, the film could be seen as a black comedy: the conquistadors are spectacularly inept as they are picked off by the unseen Indians' arrows and poison darts; you get the impression they couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery. But frequently Herzog will confront you with a striking image that makes the whole thing disquieting: the men stranded on a raft in a whirlpool; the village left burning by cannibals; the final shot of Aguirre alone, except for the monkeys sharing his raft. Couple this with the slow pace, and you get a surreal, almost druggy work. Eerie music by Popol Vuh.
Eccentric German writer/director known equally for his brilliant visionary style and tortuous filming techniques. After several years struggling financially to launch himself as a filmmaker, Herzog began his career with the wartime drama Lebenszeichen and surreal comedy Even Dwarfs Started Small. But it was the stunning 1972 jungle adventure Aguirre, Wrath of God that brought him international acclaim and began his tempestuous working relationship with Klaus Kinski. The 1975 period fable Heart of Glass featured an almost entirely hypnotised cast, while other Herzog classics from this era include Stroszek, the gothic horror Nosferatu the Vampyre and the spectacular, notoriously expensive epic Fitzcarraldo.