Much praise has been heaped upon this seminal film by Werner Herzog and even though my expectations were kept in check, it was still a major disappointment. On a technical level, there is much to be admired in Herzog’s directing abilities especially in the opening sequence which is absolutely mesmerizing. The way he positions his camera to focus on an army of travelers moving down a massive mountain side in a light fog is truly a sight to be behold. The ominous score that methodically pulsates along with the humdrum narration creates a dream-like quality that is very engrossing. Positioned on an adjacent mountain, Herzog slowly zooms in on the brigade of individuals descending further and further down which seems to last for ages. Unfortunately, as wonderful as this beginning scene is, not much that follows was truly interesting to me.
Klaus Kinski plays the ruthless captain Aguirre who will risk the lives of his own men in his selfish quest to seek the City of Gold: El Dorado. His performance is truly maddening and his bug-eyed stare is merciless. There are many close-up shots of his face where the tortured insanity is perfectly captured. He stumbles around in a drunken manner mostly yelling and even in his more muted scenes remains utterly terrifying. I can’t recall a performance that was as maddening as Kinski here. This man clearly has issues. Just observe the way he stares at his fellow soldiers with that insane glare in his eye or his creepy behavior towards his daughter. As the story progresses he becomes increasingly insane and for his performance alone, the film is worth a viewing.
Herzog is more interested in the journey rather than the destination. Whether or not Aguirre and his followers are able to reach their goal is not important here because he is more intent on using the basic set-up as a means to exploring various themes such as greed, power, madness, colonization and most importantly man vs. nature. Herzog is successful in getting across his ideas but the extremely sluggish pace diminished my interest in anything he was trying to get across despite establishing a hypnotic mood. Unfortunately, the hypnosis was much too effective and I felt bored throughout most of the film. At least the spider monkeys were cool.