THE OPENING sequence in Aguirre: Wrath of God is perhaps one of the most beautiful scenes in modern film. The Andes, spectacular in their lush greenery, rise steeply into the mist; gradually, the camera moves in through the clouds to focus on a long line of men winding slowly, silently, down a mountain pass. It is 1560, we are told, and these travellers are Spanish conquistadors coming in search of the fabled El Dorado.
That scene reflects in miniature the contradictions in the movie. With slow, silent accuracy, the camera picks out the details of the conquistadors' movement: the absurdity of their costumes in the humid sun, their lack of respect for their Indian slaves, their devotion to the cross, their reliance on weaponry, their confidence. No one talks as they slog through the mud: the audience is left to discern on its own the nature of their journey, to predict their success from the stand-point of uninformed, unaided observers.
In the rest of the film, Herzog does not make much more effort than this to help the audience understand the plot. From time to time a voice reads from the fictional diary of a monk who accompanied the fortune-hunters, but for the most part we are forced to rely on sparse dialogue and a relentlessly searching camera for our information.
Aguirre is based on the story of a small expeditionary force that went in advance of the main troop, which was led by the famous conquistador Pizarro. Setting off down the Amazon to bring back word of El Dorado, the smaller group meets so many obstacles that its leader sensibly decides to turn back; Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) leads a rebellion, and the small band continues downriver in search of the golden city.
For two months the rebels drift down the river, increasingly hungry and discouraged, but unable to turn back. They have broken their ties to civilization--even the monk who could sanctify their journey is propelled by selfishness, and like the others knows they cannot return.
FROM THE beginning of the film, we are aware that the search for El Dorado will be fruitless. The only question is whether the conquistadors will be able to survive the river, the Indians' arrows, and their own selfishness, from the time we realize the small band cannot turn back, the ending is inevitable. The film becomes a study in despair, the voyage an absurd gesture, until at last there is only Aguirre, ranting about his future greatness to an audience of dead men as his drifting raft is overrun by small monkeys.
As in the opening scene, the film never gives us any of the details behind the panorama. We watch the men float down the river without understanding any more than we knew before the film began. They are driven by greed and ambition, but we are given no hint of where that greed springs from. The characters barely interact; we see them only as figures moving in a dream. We never learn why Aguirre has brought his 15-year-old daughter on his fatal voyage, or why Dona Inez insisted on accompanying her husband. We never learn why the other men in the band follow Aguirre--in the end, it is clear that their fear of him drives them, but why do they support his initial rebellion? The characters are hardly developed beyond their initial introduction. Like the futility of their search, their personalities are presented without explanation or expansion.
The conquistadors' story is also presented without judgment. Herzog, the enfant terrible of the German film industry, is widely-known for his existentialist treatment of his subjects, and Aguirre is no different. Herzog's view of the Spaniards' abuse of the Indians they found in Latin America is offered through juxtaposition of images--four chained Indians struggle under the burden of a gaily-decorated sedan chair while its occupant looks on impassively; the monk impassively kills two Indians who fail to understand his efforts to proseletize. But the filmmaker's views are rarely more articulated than this, as if he accepts the conquistadors' brutality because that is the way it was. A great deal is left to the observer, so much so that the film often descends into an aimless drifting almost as tedious as that which it depicts.
IN THE end, Aguirre is little more than an extraordinarily beautiful enactment of an historical event. Herzog tells us little that we didn't already know, though he shows in magnificent detail the physical odds against which the conquistadors struggled in their desperate search for gold. If Kinski were a different kind of actor, Aguirre's steadily increasing megalomania might have provided a dynamic for the film, but he fails to project the reasons for his ruthless brutality. (The problem may be that the actors speak in German, and subtitles hardly aid in character development, but is more likely that Kinski's was the kind of acting Herzog asked for.) If the monk had been an impartial observer--although this is historically unlikely, since the church served as one of the main instruments of colonization in Latin America--he might have helped the audience understand the conquistadors better. As it is, however, there is almost no internal tension in Aguirre: for the most part, we watch the band drift down the river with little more understanding than we had when we watched them emerge at the beginning of the film from the green, cloud-covered mountains.