It's pretty easy to summarize the plot of Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972): a group of Conquistadors search the jungles of South America for the fabled city of El Dorado and instead meet their deaths. But the film's effect is not simple. At times beautiful, haunting, darkly funny, intense, hallucinatory, violent, and shocking, the movie is never short of ambition and to this day remains an extraordinary cinematic vision of madness, greed, and death.
In 1560, an expedition of Conquistadors and their Indian slaves march down the Andes Mountains into the jungle below. Under the command of Gozalo Pizzaro (Alejandro Repulles), they seek the golden city the Indians speak of: El Dorado. The journey is difficult, the jungle nearly impassable, and hostile natives pick off their numbers. Pizzaro decides to send a smaller expedition ahead under the command of Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) and Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski). If they find nothing within a week, the effort will be abandoned. Before long, Aguirre, driven mad by his lust for power and calling himself the Wrath of God, takes control of the party and kills or has killed those in his way. The deeper into the jungle they go, the further insane Aguirre becomes. He is so frightening that none challenge him even he leads straight them to their doom.
As I noted in my review of Stroszek, Herzog believes in the "Voodoo" of a location. Actors, he reasons, will project something entirely different on a sound stage or in a forest just outside Los Angeles than they will if they really are in the Peruvian jungle 300 miles from the nearest population center. The fatigue, despair, and borderline madness they show are genuine, and we the audience can sense the difference between the authentic and the staged. This strategy gives Aguirre, The Wrath of God something of a documentary feel. Herzong buries his camera among the actors as they wade across the river in rafts, haul cannons through sinking mud, and climb down the mountain. You can feel their exhaustion while watching.
But the movie isn't a docu-drama. Aided by the other-worldly music of the band Popol Vuh, the film takes on the feeling of a surreal descent into madness. The farther away from civilization they go, the less grasp of reason they have as harshness of the jungle closes in on them. Herzog works in several striking and iconic images; the opening shot of hundreds of men walking down the mountain in a winding path, the hallucination of a boat hanging above a tree, and the final picture of Aguirre, alone on the raft and surrounded by the corpses of his fellow explorers and hundreds of chattering monkeys as he plots to expand his "empire," are probably the best remembered moments.
Nature makes a mockery of human ambition as the movie demonstrates. The jungle is the untamed wild, the embodiment of chaos man tries to impose order on as it slowly saps his will and life. Aguirre, in a quietly manic and calculating performance by Kinski, refuses to accept this, pressing the others onward. Arrogantly, he deems himself the wrath of God, believing he can frighten his men and control nature, but ultimately, he's only half right. Only a mad man thinks he can impose his will on God or nature.