A group of Spanish conquistadors follow rumors of a golden city down river. Soon it becomes apparent that they do not follow the river to their fortunes but rather, to their demise.
Wow! I did not know what I was getting into with this film.
I knew it was Herzog (“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”) and Kinski (“Fitzcarraldo”) but nothing other than that. Having only seen Herzog’s Documentaries I wasn’t sure how I would like this one but being a Herzog film I figured it would be bleak, probably depressing, and for sure my kind of movie.
It was all that and more.
The film opens and amazes you with its scope. The cinematic quality of the film can not be understated. Breathtaking scenes and views of the Amazon rainforest, surrounding mountains, and river are populated with such an authentically dressed and burdened cast that you would swear you are seeing this group of Spanish Conquistadors as they truly would have been, trudging through that jungle. Not at all the story book drawings of finely dressed and armored noble Europeans which populate many people’s imaginations of this period.
As they descend the tight mountain passes and trudge through knee deep mud carrying dismantled cannons on their backs, the extraordinary feat of exploration which these expeditions were is profoundly impressed upon the mind. Watching this film leaves one feeling exhausted at merely the idea of such an endeavour. How much worse must it have actually been.
As the Spanish continue to search for El Dorado, the mythical city of gold, we begin to get to know the group and are finally introduced to the film’s namesake, Aguirre, the second in command of the expedition, played by Klaus Kinski and we immediately recognize him as being different from every other man in the group.
Maybe it is the way he stands, the way he glares, the way he stalks around, or the way he pontificates, but it is quite apparent that he is thinking, acting, and speaking on another level from everyone else. His intensity is so palpably felt that every other person in the team knows that though Aguirre is only second in command, he is the true leader of this cadre.
As the main group is stymied by the jungle, a group of forty are sent in advance on rafts from the rest of the main expedition to scout for natives and signs of El Dorado. What begins as a zealous search for riches turns into a struggle for survival not only against the elements and natives but also against Aguirre who cannot abide the weakness and fear of the rest of the men.
By 45 minutes into the film it is clear, Aguirre has no intention of returning to the main force but what awaits them as they continue an excursion which appears to have no end? Gold or death.
The glory of this film is in the acting and the theme. Klaus Kinski delivers a performance that I am unsure of how to even describe. It is wild and uneven yet always controlled. It is like watching a wild tiger pretending to be a house cat. You know that it may behave itself but violence is behind those eyes, threatening and weighting every moment with terrible consequence.
Herzog is brilliant in his exploration of the theme of colonialism, human existence, and the meaning of suffering. Watching the film, I could not help but think of the idea of Manifest Destiny and how tragically misinformed it was. The damage to the conquered and the conquerer alike is both physical and spiritual as they strip away the hidden meanings and rhythms of life into the bare essentials of survival, exploitation, and tribalism.
I am glad I waited till now to see this film. I think when I was younger I would have watched it and not loved it. I would have seen it as great but not as the transcendent work I think it is today. It reminds me a lot of “Apocalypse Now” in that way because that is how I feel about that film. As a young man I lacked the context to truly understand, internalize, and appreciate it but as I’ve grown older, its genius has been slowly revealed to me but “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” shot through all those paths of my mind and heart which “Apocalypse Now” prepared for it and landed with a force that left me simply dumbstruck at its brilliance.
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