Idiosyncratic visionaries don’t come any more idiosyncratic or visionary than Werner Herzog — especially when Herzog was teamed up with his madman in residence, Klaus Kinski, as he is here in the first of their six films together.
The film is Herzog’s imagining of what happened to a group of men who were sent out to get help by a Spanish expedition in the 16th Century in the jungles of South America. In reality, this splinter group from the expedition to find El Dorado — the fabled city of gold — was simply never heard of again. In Herzog’s version, they fell to in-fighting and a coup by second-in-command Don Lope de Aguirre (Kinski), who — along with everyone else — descended into madness during their fruitless search for a city that never existed.
Granted, Aguirre doesn’t have far to travel in his plunge into madness. He’s clearly on the downside of stability from the onset. Kinski plays the role with a terrifying precision — as a kind of canny animal in human form (at times he resembles John Barrymore’s spider-like Mr. Hyde in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). He’s calculating, casually cruel and more than a little paranoid.
The story is typical of Herzog — men in pursuit of a hopeless dream of their own imagining, who are also convincing themselves that they’re on a mission in the bargain. Thematically, the Spanish invaders who are determined to bring Christianity to the natives aren’t very far removed from the anti-hero of Herzog’s recent documentary Grizzly Man, who had convinced himself that his self-inflating efforts were really to protect the bears (despite the fact that the animals were already in a preserve). But Herzog loves mad dreams — this movie and the later Kinski collaboration, Fitzzcarraldo, are two of the maddest dreams in the history of film — and this is rich territory for him.
His best film? Probably not, but it’s certainly in the top three of an impressive filmography.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke