Aguirre: The Wrath of God opens with an astonishing landscape shot of a mountain side in the heart of the Amazon jungle. Images of men, reduced to size of imperceptible dots, descend along the precariously steep trail, briefly disappear into the horizon, and reemerge into the foreground of another mountain. It is late 1560, and an expedition led by Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles) has set out from the Peruvian highlands in search of El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. Faced with difficult terrain and dwindling rations, Pizarro dispatches an exploratory crew for a one week survey of the surrounding area. Pizarro tasks Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) to lead the survey crew, and appoints Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as second in command. Insulated from the threat of retribution from the Spanish government, Aguirre begins to subvert Ursua’s authority. Aguirre dissents on the rescue of a crew aboard a raft stranded on the side of the river. He instructs the men to gather materials without Ursua’s knowledge or consent. He orders the death of a soldier loyal to Ursua. However, the path to El Dorado proves to be elusive as the crew fall victim to treacherous currents, inconspicuously laden traps, and Indian attacks. Driven by the promise of wealth and conquest, Aguirre forces a mutiny when Ursua decides to retreat into the mountains.
Werner Herzog creates a visually stunning and haunting portrait of obsession and madness in Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Using recurring animal imagery, Herzog distills human behavior to its base, primeval instincts: the transportation of caged chickens down the formidable mountain; the mistreatment of a horse on the raft; the capture of a wild boar at a deserted village; the relocation of baby rats by its mother; the plague of monkeys in the final sequence. In essence, the noble ideal of propagating civilization and enlightening the indigenous people are manifestations of a deceptive goal – a rationalization for the innate greed and narcissism of men. The Spanish expedition’s “altruistic” cause – like the legendary city of El Dorado – proves to be a false, unattainable illusion.
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