Richard III and the monkeys: "What is a throne, but a plank covered with velvet?" The opening is an inspiration from Chaplin and Mann, an endless ant farm of conquistadores, monks, shackled natives, damsels in sedan chairs, horses, llamas, and rusting cannons going down the Andes, from Heaven into Hell (or the other way around, if you like). Itís 1560, and Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles) leaves the Peruvian highlands for the Amazon jungle in search of the city of El Dorado. Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) is the stringy Thor quietly seething among the men, skulking and twisting and dreaming of empires. Werner Herzog is on his wavelength, reaching for the Promethean and making everybody share the agony and ecstasy -- his masterpiece is a visualization of a medieval priestís diary, the galvanic corpse of a Michael Curtiz swashbuckler, and a documentary about bewildered actors and crew members reacting to unruly vegetation, sludgy raging rivers, an errant butterfly. "The great traitor," Aguirre takes over the expedition, cages the head nobleman (Ruy Guerra) and crowns a slob FŁhrer, with himself as the reptilian Goebbels. Aboard the slowly drifting raft, he orders his minions to open fire to break the silences that invariably precede rains of poisoned arrows, an imperially hooded horse watches from the river banks as the fools float away. The camera is perpetually off-center, scuttling in tandem with the ragtag explorers as they swarm about the remains of a cannibal village, the terrain is so tangible itís metaphysical. Ships on trees, poetry at the noose: "Little mother, two by two, wafts by the wind of my hair." Herzog the seeker, the modernist in a trance, dismantling and erecting myths with his best fiend Kinski. (To call each other "crazy" is to pay the ultimate visionary tribute.) An essential hallucination, subsequently mined by Coppola, Weir and Malick but unsurpassed in its vision of the withering yet liberating madness beneath our armor: When Aguirre climactically announces his mania in the body-strewn boat, the circling camera mourns, mocks, and exults. Cinematography by Thomas Mauch. Music by Popol Vuh. With Del Negro, Peter Berling, Helena Rojo, Edward Roland, and Cecilia Rivera.
--- Fernando F. Croce