AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD
This is how Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness would have been like if it had taken place in South America, for Aguirre: The Wrath of God has at its core an insane quest led by an insane man. Instead of searching for Colonel Kurtz, it's El Dorado they are after, but instead of finding it, the conquistadors find only chaos, destruction, and death.
Aguirre purports to tell the story of a doomed expedition into the Amazon. Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro sends a small group, led by Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra), to search for El Dorado, a fabled city of untold riches. Over Pizarro's objection, Don Pedro's mistress, Doña Inez (Helena Rojo), will accompany him. Ursua's second-in-command will be Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), who will take his daughter Flores (Cecilia Rivera) with him, again over Pizarro's objection. In short order, Aguirre leads a coup against Ursua and places the titled nobleman of the expedition Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling) as his puppet, the "Emperor of El Dorado". As they go further down the river, the members of the expedition grow more and more tired, hungry, and delusional. Yet they press on, driven by fear of Aguirre and their own gold-lust.
After a brief prologue, you slowly focus in on this group going down a mountain: Spanish conquistadors and their Incan slaves, all set to the brilliant music of Popol Vuh. There is no dialogue in these moments aside from the narrating monk Brother Gaspar (Del Negro), and the opening sets the images and themes of Aguirre brilliantly: the smallness of man to unconquered (and perhaps unconquerable) nature, and how men will plunge further and further into a hopeless project in exchange for the prospect of vast rewards rather than the reality of vast rewards. Throughout the film, the search for El Dorado drives almost everyone, even when they know the rational thing to do would be to turn back. No matter how hungry or desperate the men may be, they never talk about abandoning the project. Instead, they almost quietly fall into line.
A brilliant example of this is after Don Fernando is proclaimed Emperor. Though he has no power whatsoever the expedition treats him as if he were an actual monarch. He is fed elegant food on the makeshift raft while the rest of the crew starves. Rational men would have forced a return to the main Spanish group, but greed and the fierce nature of Aguirre push them forward. When Guzman is distracted while forcing the only horse they have out onto shore (because he finds the animal bothersome) the rest of the crew, including the monk, rush at the Emperor's table to glut themselves on his meal.
With the exception of Ursua, Inez, and the innocent Flores, everyone in the expedition is insane, not in the raving, threat to others or themselves insane, but insane in that they all let their desire for gold and glory overrule their fears and survival instincts. They lose all sense of reality and will not give up on their obsession or push the unhinged Aguirre out of power. Even when it becomes absolutely clear that he IS insane, they do nothing except continue to go along. They push onward, even though part of them knew they were headed toward their own destruction.
At the heart of Aguirre is the intense performance Klaus Kinski as the film's title character. His Aguirre is a methodical, plotting man, one who by his force of will forces everyone into line. He has a peculiar style of standing and walking which to me was reminiscent of Shakespeare's Richard III. Kinski never goes into histrionics, doesn't rave or foam at the mouth. In the beginning, he seems almost rational, if somewhat heartless. It's only as he forces everyone to go further downstream that he loses all grips with reality but has come to believe he is the only one seeing reality. It might have been possible to have Aguirre rave like a madman, but the fact that when he's spouting dangerous nonsense he's speaking in a normal tone of voice that makes him even more terrifying.
However, it's doubtful director Werner Herzog would have allowed Kinski to go into hysterics. His direction of Aguirre is different from other films dealing with the Spanish conquest of the Americas in that it is filmed completely on location and with few if any editing cuts between characters. There are no noticeable shifts between for example a close-up and a wide-shot. The sparse style of Aguirre gives it almost a documentary feel, as if you are really there with the expedition, bringing you into the story and almost making you a part of it as opposed to being a mere observer. Even when you have signs that this ISN'T a documentary, it fits in beautifully. Popol Vuh's score evokes otherworldly sounds that mix excellently with the Andean region and its native people. While there isn't much music in Aguirre, the music that there is provides the haunting atmosphere of men sinking into a madness of their own creation.
As the film draws to a close, a character remarks, "We are drifting in circles". This is the best way to describe this expedition: no direction and no idea of how to get somewhere they've never seen or who can take them there. By this time, they no longer can distinguish between reality and illusion, except for Aguirre himself. He knows what is literally true and literally false, but he's plunged into his own insanity: one for lust of power and hubris which is the ruin of them all. He continues to stand tall, towering over a sea of nothing.
On a personal note, when I finished watching Aguirre: The Wrath of God a second time, the lyrics to an old song from old leftist Pete Seeger came to mind. Seeger was referring to the Vietnam War (Aguirre may have too, that I don't know), but it seemed to capture perfectly the deranged nature of both enterprises real and fictional. "We're waist deep in the Big Muddy/And the big fool says to push on". A haunting, dark film, anchored by a fiery performance by Klaus Kinski and the cool but sharp direction of Werner Herzog, Aguirre: The Wrath of God will continue to show us the darkness within all men.