I can’t remember who suggested this movie to me. It may have been V. Anyway, it finally came to the top of my Netflix’s queue and I watched earlier this week. The film is set in South America during the 16th Century. An army of conquistadors set out to find El Dorado. They traverse the Andes Mountains. The ruggedness of the peaks and the fog creates a mystical element in their journey. Upon coming to a river, and with rations running out, they split up. One group is sent down the river to search for the city of gold. The other will wait, and if they hear no word from the first group after seven days, they plan to cross back over the mountains. The film then follows the group as they travel down the river in four rafts. There’s a combination of conquistadors and native Indians and a member of the Spanish royalty, two women (Aguirre's daughter and the mistress to the trip's leader), and a priest. The story is told from the priest’s journal.
The journey downriver is laden with disasters. One raft is trapped in an whirlpool. Unable to free themselves before a rescue party can be arranged, they are all mysteriously killed. Darts and arrows fly out of the jungle with deadly accuracy, taking out a member here and there, creating uncertainty among the group. When they finally make contact with a friendly native, the gold nugget around his neck seems to prove the existence of El Dorado, encouraging them to continue the search. When they get to the point that they must turn back to reunite with the other party, Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), the second in command and military officer, leads a mutiny. He then offers up Don Fernando de Guzman, a lazy member of the group but from Spanish royalty, as king for their new country of El Dorado. From then on, the movie becomes almost comic. The king feasts while the rest of the crew starves, until he too is killed by an arrow while in the “outhouse” (a thatched hut on the raft). In the end, it’s only Aguirre. In a delusional state, he continues to proclaim the new country he’s going to establish as the raft slowly floats downstream.
I have mixed feelings about the movie. On the one hand I enjoyed it, but then I’d enjoy a homemade Super-8 movie shot in that lush setting. In some ways, this movie wasn’t much different from a home movie as it was primarily shot with one camera and on a very limited budget. However, the dialogue in the movie is limited. The story is mostly told by a narrator reading from the dead priest’s journals. Furthermore, the cast almost makes the movie a comedy. Aguirre, with this piercing blue eyes and stringy blond hair, looks more like a Germanic or Viking warrior than a Spanish Conquistador. The idea of the actors speaking German instead of Spanish is also quite funny. (Werner Hertzog, the director is German). The sight of conquistadors with their heavy armor, standing on a raft in a raging river, is quite a sight. Aguirre and the rest of the company certainly suffered from an epidemic of gold fever that causes them to abandon caution. I almost wondered if Aguirre was a Hitler like figure when he, at the end, proclaims his goal to take his daughter as his wife and establish a pure race. Certainly Hitler wanted to a “pure race” and in the end like Aguirre, he brought everyone down with him as he self-destructed.
I recommend the move for its scenery and as a parable about how our desires can consume us.
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