Twitter Plot Summary: A group of intrepid explorers head down river in search of El Dorado, whilst natives pick them off one by one.
Five Point Summary:
1. Lots of people bumped off, very quickly.
2. A trial in the jungle.
3. Operation: Get Behind The Black Guy.
4. It’s gonna blow!
5. Best decapitation scene ever.
The opening of Aguirre: The Wrath of God firmly establishes our location and the ultimate futility of the entire expedition as a vast swathe of conquistadors work their way down a mountain path through dense jungle. They’re clearly not kitted out for this kind of journey or terrain, yet they press on regardless. A scout party are ordered ahead to gather information, with the proviso that if they do not return within a week they will be declared lost. Amongst the small party is Aguirre (Kinski), a mad eyed Don and second in command of this troupe. I think it goes without saying that things will not end well – not only do they have to battle the elements but also must contend with natives who are unwelcoming to say the least. As time progresses madness starts to seep into everyone’s behaviour, particularly as more and more of them are either picked off by the somewhat unhappy jungle natives, or fall foul of disease and die a slow death. By the final scene we’re reduced to just a few survivors, a far cry from the opening mountain descent and resulting in an almost inevitable conclusion.
Klaus Kinski is superb as Aguirre, his eyes constantly searching the environment and balancing between out and out insanity and genuine care for his daughter, who is also along for the trip. It’s easy to understand why Kinski caused such tension on the shoot – for the most part he doesn’t seem to be acting per se, merely reacting to the folly of those around him. He seems a genuinely unhinged human specimen and for that very reason is both fascinating yet terrifying in equal measure. There isn’t much to be said about the remaining cast in all fairness – they do their jobs efficiently but there’s nothing notable about their performances. It’s easy to argue that the jungle is the next most important character in Aguirre… as it dominates everything from that opening shot onwards.
There’s also the little matter of El Dorado itself. It remains forever out of reach, yet man’s greed and avarice pushes him on regardless. What’s important here is the journey itself, the constant rush of the river, the threat from cannibalistic natives, the entire works. To an extent they’re all blind to the reality of their situation, although Aguirre does point out early on that travelling down the river is a futile effort. There’s also the religious angle to take into account, in particular where a discussion with some natives turns sour when they hold the Bible and reveal, rather sensibly, that it’s not talking to them. There is subtext aplenty for those who wish to go looking for it, and beautifully captures the existential aspects of existence and a true study into the darkest reaches of the human psyche. Much like Heart of Darkness, this is a journey into the unknown, both literally and figuratively.
I will also forever be amused at the fact that, in the version I own at least, I was watching Spanish conquistadors speaking in German. That never gets old.