"After the conquest and plundering of the Inca empire by Spain, the Indians invented the legend of El Dorado. A land of gold, located in the swamps of the Amazon headwaters. A large expedition of Spanish adventurers, led by Gonzalo Pizarro, set off from the Peruvian highlands in late 1560. The only document to survive from this lost expedition is the diary of the monk Gaspar de."
Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God is one of those epic masterpieces that could never be made today. The film-making process that Herzog and his cast and crew endured was grueling, risky and at times life threatening, filming on location on the Amazon River. Aguirre: The Wrath of God, tells a story which takes place in the year 1560 about a doomed expedition led by a group of men in the Peruvian rain forest in search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado. Klaus Kinski plays Aguirre, one of the most frightening villains ever captured on film. A man so ruthless and evil, he will let nothing and no one get in his way to retrieve his untold riches. Right from the beginning Aguirre proves to be an oppressive leader, so terrifying that few protest his leadership and those who complain are easily killed. Klaus Kinski embodies the character of Aguirre perfectly with his frightening facial expressions, his stern cold eyes and his crab spider-like walk. Kinski creates a man on the verge of madness always scheming and plotting against others and the only person Aguirre shows any tenderness or love towards is his 15-year-old daughter, which disturbingly feels incestuous. The films themes of greed, murder, madness and lust for power has made this one of the most powerful films to explore the dark side of the human soul, and so its not to surprising and this was one of the main influences for Frances Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Aguirre: Wrath of God has some of the most haunting and most dangerous sequences ever captured on celluloid which includes its iconic opening of a snake-like line of men making their way down the steep Andes mountains through a thick fog of clouds and jungle, or the thrilling sequence of rafts getting caught in a horrifying and dangerous whirlpool, or the decapitation of a man plotting to escape, whose head continues to speak shortly after the man is beheaded. In one of the most beautiful camera shots of the film, the camera rotates 360 degrees around and around Aguirre alone on the leaking raft surrounded by corpses and chattering monkeys as you hear the voice-over of Aguirre's madness still planning his new empire. The making of Aguirre: The Wrath of God became as legendary to film buffs as the film itself, as right from the beginning of the production Herzog would purposely try infuriating Kinski to get the most frightening performance he desired out of him. Kinski's angry outbursts would result in not only a gunshot blowing off the top joint of a extras finger but Herzog threatening to shoot first Kinski and then himself, at a time when Kinski threatened to walk off set. Over the years this story has been given rise to the legend that Herzog made Kinski act for him at gunpoint. However Herzog debunked that rumor in the DVD commentary track by stating, "I was unarmed but somehow in order to look better Kinski reported as if I had drawn a gun at him...it's not like that. But I would have shot him, there was no doubt and the bastard understood it was not a joke. I just out-gutted him and was more determined than he was. After that he behaved for like ten days."
The opening shot is one of the most beautiful shots of the film. It shows a snake-like line of men clad in half armor, steel helmets and breastplates carrying their women in enclosed sedan-chairs. They are making their way down from Quito in the Andes mountains into the jungle below full of fog and clouds. The haunting music sets the tone of the film which gives it a very hypnotic and eerie feel while we follow these men to be slowly led to their doom. Under the command of Gonzalo Pizarro, the party's mission is to find El Dorado a land of gold and riches. The men pull large cannons through narrow mountainous paths, and humid fog throughout the jungle.
After much difficulty, on New Year's Eve Pizarro orders a small expeditionary group of forty men to continue ahead by rafting down a river on search for El Dorado. If they do not return to the main party within one week with news of what lies beyond, they will be considered lost. Pizarro chooses Don Pedro de Ursúa as the commander of the expedition, Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as his second-in-command, a fat nobleman Don Fernando de Guzmán who represents The Royal House of Spain and brother Gaspar de Carvajal as a chronicler. Also accompanying the expedition, against Pizarro's wishes, are Ursúa's mistress Doña Inéz, Aguirre's 15-year-old daughter Florés and a black slave named Okello.
One of the most breathtaking scenes is when four rafts of Ursúa's men becomes separated from the others and get caught in a horrifying whirlpool. Herzog's camera stays across the river away from the endangered rafters, making their cries for help feel distant and unapproachable. To how Herzog filmed this scene without risking injury to any of the actors is extraordinary, because all the action scenes in this film are authentic without the use of CGI or effects. Aguirre dismisses any attempt to want to rescue the men and the rescue team is unable to approach the raft until the following day, when all men on the raft are found to have been killed by unknown indian attackers.
Ursúa wants the bodies to be brought back to camp for proper burial. Knowing this would slow down the expedition, Aguirre orders his right hand man Perucho to instead fire the cannon asking Perucho, "Perucho, don't you think the cannon might be a little bit rusty?" Perucho responds, "It might." He then does what Aguirre orders and fires the cannon at the raft which sinks it, and the corpses are lost in the river.
The native indians are usually unseen when they attack the Spanish soldiers and most of the violence is usually off-screen as arrows fly softly out of the jungle and into the necks and backs of the men. There is a frightening scene where one of the men is caught by a boobytrap set by the natives and is taken up to the trees and is killed.
During the night, the remaining rafts are swept away by the rising river and many of the men start questioning if they should go on with the exhibition. Since supplies start to run low and things get progressively worse, Ursúa decides that their mission is hopeless saying, "we have to march back, of course because the current is too strong. We need to get back within the time Pizarro ordered." Aguirre does not agree with Ursúa and says, "shit on Pizarro! I say we can conquer without Pizarro"! Wanting power, Aguirre takes the opportunity to lead a rebellion against Ursúa, telling the men that untold riches await them ahead in El Dorado. "Do you remember Hernando Cortez? Bound for Mexico, he was ordered to return, but he just went on! He ignored the orders and conquered Mexico! That's how he became rich and famous, because he disobeyed!!"
Because of Aguirre ignoring Ursúa's orders and trying to turn his own men against him, Ursúa orders his loyal to put Aguirre in chains. Suddenly Aguirre's men protect him and shoot Ursúa and his loyal. Theres a quite surreal moment after the mutiny where there's a native slave playing music through a flute like instrument while you watch Aguirre's frightening expression on what he's plotting what to do next with the men.
Ursúa's mistress Inéz, cares for Ursúa's wounds as she talks to Gaspar on how she believes Aguirre wont stop until he sends them all to their doom. While the explorers are waiting for the tides to calm, there's a heartbreaking moment where one of the native slaves tells Aguirre's daughter, “Plagues have come over my people - earthquakes and floods, but what the Spaniards did to us is much, much worse. I was born a prince, and men were forbidden to look on me. Now I am in chains.''
There's an interesting establishing shot with Aguirre first finding blood hand prints, which then leads to the body of a guard who was killed by an escaped slave. Again, the violence isn't shown; just the aftermath which gives this film a surreal mystical like quality.
Aguirre slowly plots as he coerces the soldiers to "elect" the fat, lazy Don Fernando de Guzman as the new leader of the expedition. Aguirre proclaims Guzman Emperor in the New World, “dethroning” Philip II and tries to talk Guzman into having Ursúa be put to death. Guzman says, "While I'm Emperor, law will prevail. No killings without a trail." Aguirre casually responds, "Then try him...then kill him." A farcical trial of Ursúa results in Ursúa being sentenced to death, but Guzman surprises Aguirre by refusing to allow this to happen and instead Guzman grants Ursúa clemency which upsets Aguirre.
Aguirre proves to be an oppressive leader, so terrifying that few protest his leadership and those who complain are killed. Only Inez has the courage to speak out against Aguirre knowing that some of the soldiers are still loyal to Ursúa, but Aguirre simply ignores her comments knowing he will do her away very soon.
The expedition sets out again on a single, newly built, large raft and the explorers finds an abandoned Indian hut where they steal food but quickly leave when discovering human bones and remains - realizing the natives are cannibals. One morning an Indian couple approach with a canoe. They are then captured by the explorers, and are questioned.
Aquirre notices one of the Indians wearing gold and questions him on where he found the gold. Before translating a direct answer, the native gets confused at the sight of a Bible and because of that Brother Gaspar de Carvajal has the man and his wife killed for blasphemy.
Guzman, now emperor of the group takes advantage of his position by dining and eating greedily while his men are starving and our rationing out their few kernel's of corn. A horse goes mad on the raft, and Guzman orders it thrown overboard because it annoys him, and men mutter darkly that it would have supplied meat for them for a week.
There's a haunting shot after the horse is pushed off-board the raft and swims to shore, where the horse and Aguirre are staring at each other while the raft slowly drifts floats on.
Soon after, Guzman is found strangled near the raft's outhouse, of course having the death again not shown. I believe not explaining the death of many of the men is symbolic for the destiny of this expedition and for its doomed explorers. After Guzman's death, Aguirre proclaims himself leader and quickly orders to have Ursúa taken ashore and hanged in the jungle.
After the hanging, the explorer's come across a group of natives shouting and screaming. Aguirre asks one of his slaves, "What are they shouting?" His slave answers, "Meat is floating by." In one of the few action-like scenes of the film, the explorers attack an Indian village where many of the soldiers are killed by spears, while the natives are attacking deep from within the jungles. Inez who is distraught by the death of Ursúa walks into the jungle to let the natives kill her knowing Aguirre will eventually order her killed anyway.
After the battle, Aguirre overhears one of his men saying, "I'd rather join the Indians than stay with this madman." Aguirre tells Perucho, "That man is a head taller than me. That may change." In one of the most shocking scenes of the film, and probably the only real onscreen violence that is clearly shown, is when the man plotting to escape is beheaded swiftly with a sword in the middle of speaking and the camera follows the head continuing to speak shortly after the man is beheaded.
After the decapitation, all the men look at Aguirre in fear. Aguirre then makes one of the most terrifying speeches in cinema history which I would compare to Marlon Brando's speech in Apocalypse Now. "I am the great traitor. There can be no greater! Whoever even thinks about deserting will be cut into 198 pieces! And then trampled upon until you can paint the walls with him. Whoever takes one grain too many or drinks one drop of water too much...will be locked up for 155 years. If I, Aguirre, want the birds to drop dead from the trees...the birds will drop dead from the trees. I am the wrath of God. The earth I walk upon seeks me and quakes! But whoever follows me and the river, will win untold riches. But whoever deserts..."
Near the climax of the film things become even more strange and surreal as Aguirre, now the ruler leads his men to certain doom - to a place that does not exist and is only an illusion in Aguirre's insanity. The men slowly starve to death and they all catch a fever which causes them to start hallucinating. The explorers gaze in awe at a wooden ship perched in the highest branches of one of the tall trees and one man even dazes off to admire a butterfly on his finger.
Gaspar confronts Aguirre that he is leading his men to suicide saying. "Things are not turning out as we expected. We see nothing but hunger and death. We lose men, but we never see the enemy. Even El Dorado hasn't been more than an illusion." There's a disturbing shot which could never have been done in a mainstream film where you see a mouse eating several of its babies from its nest on the raft. In a final Indian attack, all remaining survivors, including Gaspar and Aguirre’s daughter, are killed by arrows and since many of his men are dying of a fever, they don't even react to the attack. When Okello gets shot in the leg he is so out of it he believes it's all a dream. "That is no ship. That is no forest. That is no arrow. We just imagine the arrows because we fear them."
In one of the most beautiful camera shots of the film, the camera spins around and around the raft with Aguirre as the only living survivor as you watch monkeys slowly taking the raft over. You hear the voice-over of Aguirre's madness mixed with the haunting music by Florian Fricke, which is extraordinary. Watching an insane Aguirre looking onwards believing he will reach the land of El Dorado and proclaim its riches is one of the greatest shot's in cinematic history."If we turn back now, others will come and they will succeed and we'll remain a failure! When we reach the sea we will build a bigger ship, sail north and take Trinidad from the Spanish crown! From then on we'll sail on, and take Mexico from Cortez! What great treachery this will be!! Then all of New Spain will be in our hands. I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen! Together...we shall rule this entire continent! We shall endure. I am the Wrath of God!!!"
NEW GERMAN CINEMA
The legendary director Werner Herzog was one of the major director's who contributed in the New German Cinema movement which lasted throughout the late 1960's to the 1980's. This movement was a sudden emergence of new generation German director's who produced a number of small low budget avantgarde films that caught the attention of art house audiences and enabled these directors into better financed productions which were even backed by the US studios. Such directors involved in the New German Cinema movement besides Werner Herzog were Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, VolkerSchlondorff, and Wim Wenders; as these young set of filmmakers sparked a renaissance in German cinema and their success encouraged other German filmmakers to make such quality stories. The New German Cinema was influenced by other earlier film movements like the French New Wave, British Kitchen Sink realism, and Italian Neorealism with references to the well-established genres of The Hollywood cinema. These films mostly contained low budget stories that represented contemporary German life as several of these filmmakers were specifically concerned with asking questions about national identity, German history, and the gritty and bleak experiences of modern struggles.
As a reaction to the artistic and economic stagnation of German cinema, these group of young German film-makers issued the Oberhausen Manifesto on 28 February 1962, which was a group that provocatively and confidently declared that "The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new cinema". The Oberhausen Manifesto was a rejection of the existing German film industry and their determination to build a new industry founded on artistic excellence rather than commercial dictates; most famously with Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul and Wim Wender's Wings of Desire.
Aguirre: The Wrath of God's development came when Werner Herzog borrowed a book on historical adventurers from a friend. After reading a half page devoted to Lope de Aguirre, the filmmaker became inspired and immediately devised the story and wrote the screenplay in a frenzy, and completed it in only two and a half days.
The screenplay was shot as written, with some minor differences. In an early scene in which Pizarro instructs Ursúa to lead the scouting team down the river, in the script Pizarro mentions that in the course of the expedition Ursúa could possibly discover what happened to Francisco de Orellana's expedition, which had vanished without a trace years before. Later in the screenplay, Aguirre and his men find a boat and the long dead remains of Orellana's soldiers. Further down the river, they discover another ship lodged in some tree tops. In the screenplay, Aguirre and others explore the boat but find no sign of Orellana or his men. Herzog ultimately eliminated any such references to Orellana's expedition from the film. The sequence with the boat caught in the upper branches of a tree remains, but as filmed it seems to be simply a hallucinatory vision.
The finale is significantly different to Herzog's original script. The director recalled, "I only remember that the end of the film was totally different. The end was actually the raft going out into the open ocean and being swept back inland, because for many miles you have a counter-current, the Amazon actually goes backwards. And it was tossed to and fro. And a parrot would scream: "El Dorado, El Dorado"..."
The film was made for US $370,000, with one-third of the budget paying for Kinski's salary. It was filmed on location in the Peruvian rainforest on the Amazon River tributaries of the Ucayali region. The reasons for not using a set and shooting in the real locations in the Amazon was to give the film a real authentic grunt like feel and Herzog knew there were things you could achieve on location that you could not achieve on a stage. Aguirre was shot in five weeks, following nine month's worth of pre-production planning. All of the actors spoke their dialogue in English. The members of the cast and crew came from sixteen different countries, and English was the only common language among them. In addition, Herzog felt that shooting Aguirre in English would improve the film's chances for international distribution. The English-language track was ultimately replaced by a higher-quality German language version, which was post-synced after production was completed. Herzog claims that Kinski requested too much money for the dubbing session, and so his lines were performed by another actor.
The low budget precluded the use of stunt men or elaborate special effects. The cast and crew climbed up mountains, hacked through thick jungle, and rode ferocious Amazonian river rapids on rafts built by natives. At one point, a storm caused a river to flood, covering the film sets in several feet of water and destroying all the rafts built for the film. This flooding was immediately incorporated into the story, as a sequence including a flood and subsequent rebuilding of rafts was shot.
The camera used to shoot the film was stolen by Herzog from the Munich Film School. Years later, Herzog recalled:"It was a very simple 35mm camera, one I used on many other films, so I do not consider it a theft. For me, it was truly a necessity. I wanted to make films and needed a camera. I had some sort of natural right to this tool. If you need air to breathe, and you are locked in a room, you have to take a chisel and hammer and break down a wall. It is your absolute right."
To obtain the monkeys used in the climactic sequence, Herzog paid several locals to trap 400 monkeys; he paid them half in advance and was to pay the other half upon receipt. The trappers sold the monkeys to someone in Los Angeles or Miami, and Herzog came to the airport just as the monkeys were being loaded to be shipped out of the country. He pretended to be a veterinarian and claimed that the monkeys needed vaccinations before leaving the country. Abashed, the handlers unloaded the monkeys, and Herzog loaded them into his jeep and drove away, used them in the shot they were required for, and released them afterwards into the jungle.
Herzog's first choice for the role of Aguirre was actor Klaus Kinski. The two had met many years before when the then-struggling young actor rented a room in Herzog’s family apartment, and the boarder’s often terrifying and deranged antics during the three months he lived there left a lasting impression on the director. Years later, Herzog remembered the volatile actor and knew that he was the only possible man who could play the mad Aguirre, and he sent Kinski a copy of the screenplay. "Between three and four in the morning, the phone rang," Herzog recalled. "It took me at least a couple of minutes before I realized that it was Kinski who was the source of this inarticulate screaming. And after an hour of this, it dawned on me that he found it the most fascinating screenplay and wanted to be Aguirre."
From the beginning of the production, Herzog and Kinski argued about the proper manner to portray Aguirre. Kinski wanted to play a "wild, ranting madman", but Herzog wanted something "quieter, more menacing". In order to get the performance he desired, before each shot Herzog would deliberately infuriate Kinski. After waiting for the hot-tempered actor's inevitable tantrum to "burn itself out", Herzog would then roll the camera.
On one occasion, irritated by the noise from a hut where cast and crew were playing cards, the explosive Kinski fired three gunshots at it, blowing the top joint off one extra's finger. Subsequently, Kinski started leaving the jungle location (over Herzog's refusal to fire a sound assistant), only changing his mind after Herzog threatened to shoot first Kinski and then himself. The latter incident has given rise to the legend that Herzog made Kinski act for him at gunpoint. However, Herzog has repeatedly denied the claim during interviews, explaining he only verbally threatened Kinski in the heat of the moment, in a desperate attempt to keep him from leaving the set. Herzog said in the DVD commentary track, "I was unarmed but somehow in order to look better Kinski reported as if I had drawn a gun at him...it not like that. But I would have shot him, there was no doubt and the bastard understood it was not a joke. I just out-gutted him and was more determined than he was. After that he behaved for like ten days."
Kinski’s crazed performance bore similarities to the real Aguirre. A “true homicidal megalomaniac”, many of his fellow soldiers considered his actions to be that of a madman. Kinski’s use of a limp reflected one that Aguirre actually had, the result of a battle injury. Aguirre’s frequent short but impassioned speeches to his men in the film were accurately based on the man’s noted “simple but effective rhetorical ability."
The music in the film brings a haunting power and sets the major tone for many of its themes. The music was done by Florian Fricke, whose band Popol Vuh has created soundtracks to several of Herzog's films. For the opening sequence, Herzog told film critic Roger Ebert, “We used a strange instrument, which we called a 'choir-organ.' It has inside it three dozen different tapes running parallel to each other in loops. All these tapes are running at the same time, and there is a keyboard on which you can play them like an organ so that it will sound just like a human choir, but yet at the same time, very artificial and really quite eerie.''
The film was produced in part by German television station Hessischer Rundfunk, which televised the film on the same day it opened in German theatres. Herzog has blamed this for the relatively poor commercial reception of the film in Germany. However, outside Germany the film became an "enormous cult favorite" in "such places as Mexico, Venezuela, and Algiers." The film had a theatrical run of fifteen months in Paris. Aguirre received a theatrical release in the United States in 1977 by New Yorker Films. It immediately became a cult film, and New Yorker Films reported four years after its initial release that it was the only film in its catalog that never went out of circulation.
In Germany, the Süddeutsche Zeitung described the film as "a colour-drenched, violently physical moving painting". The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described Kinski's acting as "too theatrical" to embody God's wrath.
In the US and the UK, the film received mostly positive critical notices upon release. Vincent Canby, writing in The New York Times, called it, "Absolutely stunning...Mr. Herzog views all the proceedings with fixed detachment. He remains cool. He takes no sides. He may even be slightly amused. Mainly he is a poet who constantly surprises us with unexpected juxtapositions ... This is a splendid and haunting work. In Time, Richard Schickel opinioned that "Herzog does the audience the honor of allowing it to discover the blindnesses and obsessions, the sober lunacies he quietly lays out on the screen. Well acted, most notably by Klaus Kinski in the title role, gloriously photographed by Thomas Mauch, Aguirre is, not to put too fine a point on it, a movie that makes a convincing claim to greatness." Time Out's Tony Rayns noted, "...each scene and each detail is honed down to its salient features. On this level, the film effectively pre-empts analysis by analysing itself as it proceeds, admitting no ambiguity. Yet at the same time, Herzog's flair for charged explosive imagery has never had freer rein, and the film is rich in oneiric moments."
Aguirre has won several prestigious film awards. In 1973, it won the Deutscher Filmpreis (German Film Award) for "Outstanding Individual Achievement: Cinematography". In 1976, it was voted the "Best Foreign Film" by the French Syndicate of Film Critics. In 1977, the National Society of Film Critics US gave it their "Best Cinematography" Award. It won the prestigious Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association in 1976 and was nominated for a "Best Film" César Award.
1979 film Apocalypse Now, a film based on Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, was influenced also by Aguirre, as it contains seemingly deliberate visual "quotations" of Herzog's film. Coppola himself has noted, "Aguirre, with its incredible imagery, was a very strong influence. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it."
Like Stanley Kubrick, Werner Herzog is known to take risks in the epic projects that he creates. Other grand films that share the audacity and creativity of his vision are films such as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Frances Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. Herzog is also famous for the unusual cast of character's he hires for his films. And similar to the fascinating stories that Kinski developed when working alongside Herzog, an unknown actor named Bruno S. is another that Herzog found fascinating, and hired him to be the lead in his character pieces Stroszek and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. His odd-ball masterpiece Stroszek, tells the story of a man released from prison and with a friend and prostitute leave Germany and come to America. Bruno Scheinstein was born the son of a prostitute and incarcerated in a mental institution from most of his early life. Herzog used him again for the film The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, which was based upon the true and mysterious story of Kaspar Hauser, a young man who suddenly appeared in Nuremberg in 1828, barely able to speak or walk.
Herzog also remade the F.W. Murnau silent expressionistic classic Nosferatu in which the film was a personal favorite of Herzog's, and he even filmed it using the same locations as Murnau had. One of my favorite films, and a companion piece to Aguirre is Fitzcarraldo which also stars Kinski, was also shot in the rain forest and also involves an impossible task of men physically moving a steamship from one river to another by dragging it across land. Of course Herzog literally dragged a real ship across land to make the film, despite urgent warnings by engineers that the cables would snap and slice everyone in half. A documentary that explores the trials and tribulations of shooting of that film is titled Burden of Dreams by Les Blank, and it is as harrowing as the film itself.
The music is what sets the hypnotic tone and meditative mood for Aguirre: Wrath of God. It is a haunting, organic and poetic sound, a sound that becomes a character of its own through the story as it greatly helps emphasize the overall effect of tragedy and doom. This haunting music was created by Florian Frick whose band Popol Vuh has contributed to several of Herzog's films. Aguirre's story is a visionary, meditative and spiritual journey in which its frightening and slightly surreal environment will slowly come crashing down on the expedition all because of the sick delusions of a psychopath leader, which will tragically lead them to their doom.
If the music is highly crucial in Aguirre's effect on its audience, then so is the frightening performance by Klaus Kinski. Kinski plays a madman who rules with a reign of terror as he walks lopsided as if one of his legs isn't able to bend. Herzog told film critic Roger Ebert when he was a young man in Germany he first came across Kinski for the very first time and thought. "At that moment I knew it was my destiny to make films, and his to act in them."
Unlike the films of today, Herzog purposely does not rush the journey or fill the scenes with unnecessary action or violence in order to keep audiences interested. Herzog has enough confidence in his artistry to have the expedition take its time to develop, so that audiences can let the haunting visuals soak slowly in as they get immersed inside its hypnotic story. What we feel during the film is the slow heightening of suspense and mood as the jungle becomes tighter and tighter and much more claustrophobic the farther they journey in.
In a enthralling sequence four rafts suddenly become separated from the others and get caught in a horrifying whirlpool. Herzog's purposely camera stays across the river away from the endangered rafters, making their helpless cries feel much more distant and unapproachable. To how Herzog filmed this scene without risking injury to any of the actors is extraordinary, because all the action scenes in this film are authentic without the use of CGI or effects. Watching Herzog perform some of these dangerous stunts and obstacles along with his cast and crew is similar to watching circus actors perform without the safety of a net. We take for granted today how simple effects can be easily created and manipulated within the safety of a blue-screen. And yet you can't reproduce the same electrifying feeling of thrills and danger with the CGI films of today compared to the grunt and grueling risks that it took for a film like Aguirre to be made, where Herzog worked in real locations, working in extreme weather conditions and climates.
Most of the death that occurs in Aguirre: Wrath of God are not visually shown and happens off-screen swiftly and silently. Why? I believe the point of this is because death is the natural destiny of this expedition. And what we don't see we create in our minds, which is much more frightening and surreal. With the violence not necessarily being shown and just the aftermath, it adds a mystical like quality to the film. Aguirre: Wrath of God is not driven by much dialogue during the slow unfolding of its story as Herzog told critic Roger Ebert, “I did not know the dialogue 10 minutes before we shot a scene.” Much of the character of Aguirre that is created by Kinski is told simply through facial expressions and body movements. With Kinski's frightening facial expressions, his stern cold eyes and his crab spider-like walk, Kinski has created one of the most memorable villains in all of films history, one who should be listed along side others such as Hannibal Lector, Norman Bates and Frankenstein. Kinski seems to steal every shot he is in, as his menacing scowl always looks as if he is on the verge of scheming and plotting against others. The only person Aguirre seems to show any sign of tenderness or love towards is his 15-year-old daughter, which disturbingly feels incestuous. Even near the end of the film where Aguirre has truly lost grips of all reality, he announces his love for his daughter and his desire to want to marry her, which adds an extra layer of evil and creepiness to his already terrifying and grotesque character. Aguirre: Wrath of God's reputation throughout the years has continued to grow. J. Hoberman has written that Aguirre "is not just a great movie but an essential one ... Herzog's third feature ... is both a landmark film and a magnificent social metaphor." Danny Peary wrote, "To see Aguirre for the first time is to discover a genuine masterpiece. It is overwhelming, spellbinding; at first dreamlike, and then hallucinatory." Roger Ebert has added it to his list of 'Great Movies', and in a 2002 Sight & Sound poll of critics and filmmakers on the best films ever made. In 1999, Rolling Stone included the film on the magazine's "100 Maverick Movies of the Last 100 Years" list. Aguirre was included in Time Magazine's "All Time 100 Best Films", compiled by Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss. Entertainment Weekly named it the 46th greatest cult film ever made. The film was ranked #19 in Empire magazine's The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010. The feelings of illusions and surrealism seem to slowly increase near the conclusion of the film as Aguirre leads his men to certain doom. Insanity starts to take shape as fantasy and hallucinations begin to take over once Aguirre's men catch a fever. These last moments right before his men's death is when the film feels it completely breaks free from reality, like for instance the shot of a man admiring a butterfly on the tip of his finger, or the gaze in awe at a wooden ship high up in the trees, and the disturbing sequence in which a mouse eats several of its babies from its nest. These sequences remind me of the surrealistic insanity that occurs near the gothic end of Frances Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Out of all the several great shots that I have listed in the film, there is one shot that I believe is one of the most effective and haunting shots in the story. It's a shot so small, subtle and strange, and yet it adds an even greater layer to Aguirre's meditative and hypnotic atmosphere. It's the one shot after the horse is pushed off-board the raft and it swims to shore. The horse and Aguirre lock eyes with one another while the raft slowly drifts and floats on. Aguirre almost looks slightly mournful towards this animal, and the horse seems to feel the same towards Aguirre. It's one of my favorite moments in the film.