No question, I am a big fan of the movies of Werner Herzog, one of the greatest film directors of our times. Like the proverbial “renaissance man,” Herzog’s range of interests cover virtually anything. Herzog has produced movies on life deep in the Siberian taiga; Kuwaiti oil fires after Saddam’s departure; the Internet; deaf-mutes; the man who loved grizzlies in Alaska and was eaten by one; Antarctica; 30,000 year old cave paintings in France; a German who became an American pilot during the Vietnam War and was shot down, became a POW, and successfully escaped; Gertrude Bell; the medieval German village that lost the secret to making red glass and whose inhabitants went crazy; and the subject film, about a pathologically obsessed Spanish conquistador’s lust for gold.
I first saw this film in the ‘70’s at my favorite one-and-only art theater in Atlanta. On this recent second viewing, I appreciated it much more, thanks to the additional background I have obtained, in particular, by reading “Herzog by Ebert,” written by the former influential film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Gold. Immutable gold. And man’s (and woman’s) obsession with acquiring it, the more the better. The Spanish conquistadors provide a famous example of this obsession. Still less than a century after Columbus “discovered” America, in 1560, Pizarro set off from the Peruvian highlands to find the legendary Indian-invented land where gold was plentiful: “El Dorado.” An advanced party was led by Don Ursua, with Don Lope de Aquirre second-in-command, descended from the highlands, and followed the raging course of one of the tributaries of the Amazon, far enough down to where the river flowed broadly and placidly. The “placid” did not apply to the natives, who were relentlessly attacking them, in guerrilla-like actions. Of the real events of 1560, only the diary of the monk, Gaspar de Carvajal, survives.
Klaus Kinski plays the role of Don Lope. His picture is on the cover to the movie, with that wild-eyed look. This was no act. He really had been locked up in Germany for mental-health reasons. He would stay at Herzog’s home after his release, and in the process, Herzog would determine he was the only actor for the job. During the actual filming, various threats would fly between the two of them, including death threats via a gun being waved. Additional background would reveal that it was a very low-budget film, with the actors having to sleep in the jungle, build the rafts, etc.
In addition to the attacks by the natives, there was the raging river itself, the tropical climate and diseases, and the internal dissensions within the group, which led to Aquirre’s revolt, the proclamation of a Kingdom separate from Spain, and the true descent into madness, whereby Aquirre would also proclaim that he was “the wrath of God.” Oh yes, and where is the monk in all this? He states: “The Church is always on the side of the strong.”
5-stars for yet another excellent Herzog movie. ‘Tis a pity seemingly so many students were forced to watch this, which must account for the numerous 1-star ratings. Once upon a time, I might have been one of them.