This Werner Herzog film offers the oddly resonant experience of Spanish Conquistadors speaking German (with English subtitles). The title name is pronounced Ah-gear-ay, according to Herzog. A print legend establishes that late in 1560, Gonzalo Pizarro (half-brother to the conqueror of the Inca Empire) set off on an expedition through the Peruvian Sierras in search of the city of gold, El Dorado – a legend invented by the Inca people. The only document of this adventure is a diary kept by the monk, Brother Gaspar de Carvajal. As the group trails through the high mountains, the voice of the monk relates that they are crossing the last pass of the Andes on Christmas Day 1560, and seeing the jungle for the first time. They come to a river that probably leads to the Amazon.
There are two young women in the group and about 200 Indian slaves. Much is made of the brutal domination exercised by the Spaniards over the Indians. When it becomes uncertain whether they should continue, Pizarro sends a small group ahead to reconnoiter hostile Indians and the location of El Dorado. They are given one week to return. The two women go with the group. One is the wife of the commander; the other is the daughter of Aguirre (Klaus Kinski). They set out on rafts on the 4th of January 1561. Immediately the trip becomes treacherous. They run into rapids and Indians. Their hardships increase. Spaniards are killed by Indians and by each other. They push on, driven by the lust for gold. Gaspar keeps reminding them that they also have the mission of bringing the word of God to these uncivilized regions. More and more, Kinski comes to embody the base impulses of the Spaniards. Comparing himself to Cortes, he gradually eliminates his superiors and takes command of the expedition.
As things become tense and uncertain, an Indian with panpipes is enlisted to play a happy tune to lighten the mood. It does not work. A skittish horse is pushed overboard and disappears into the shallows along the river’s edge. Things just keep getting worse. They have built a thatched shelter on a large raft and drift slowly down the river. Coming upon an Indian village, and discovering evidence of cannibalism, they burn the dwellings and scatter the inhabitants into the jungle. One of the women wanders into the jungle and disappears. A traitor is beheaded. Aguirre goes increasingly mad and declares, “I am the wrath of god.” The men are sick and hallucinating. The raft is infested with small monkeys. Every one of the men is dead, except Aguirre who floats on toward dreams of fame and power. The End. This was Herzog’s first feature film. It was shot in Peru in the area of Machu Pichu and the Urubamba River. Apparently, Kinski was more of a madman than any of the characters he played. See the documentary, My Best Fiend in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.