This justifiably famous film features one of the strangest and most impressive performances in film history. Klaus Kinski, the great German actor, brings evil life to Aguirre; his performance brings to mind a nearly perfect Richard III. His hunched back and simian movements lend a sliminess to his role, but it is his restraint that makes the part work so well. He starts off as a quiet onlooker, waiting for his chance to seize power. This quickly comes when the small party starts to encounter natives and a horrible set of rapids that strands many of the party aboard a raft. In the morning, all aboard are dead, and their deaths are never explained. Aguirre takes this opportunity to seize power, not by taking it himself, but by browbeating the nobleman Guzman (Peter Berling) into accepting the leadership of the newly-formed breakaway empire that Aguirre decides to create. Aguirre leads by convincing the others to suggest things that he wants them to do. It's very Shakespearian, how he ends up at the end, stranded aboard the last raft while hundreds of screaming monkeys run amidst the dead bodies of his comrades.
The film suggests Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," which followed it by several years. It certainly influenced Coppola's vision of the journey upriver to madness. The jungle in this film is perhaps the best example I can think of where the terrain takes on a life of its own, to the point where it becomes a major character. This is what Conrad was writing about in "Heart of Darkness"; the outsider's impossible efforts to subjugate the wilderness, succumbing to the wildness in himself and destroying himself in the process.
The film was apparently originally shot in English, but when viewers reacted negatively to the supposedly Spanish party speaking in English, the filmmakers decided to re-dub the film in German. Makes sense, sort of. I definitely agree that the film would have suffered had the English soundtrack been kept. Don't ask me why; just see the movie and you'll understand. The movie was based, at least partly, on a journal kept by a member of the ill-fated party, Brother Caspar de Carvajal.
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