“In 1560, not quite twenty years after the death of Francisco Pizarro, who had conquered Peru for Spain, an elaborately provisioned party of conquistadores set out from Quito to find the land of El Dorado. It was a fearful journey first to cross the Andes but even worse on the other side. Those who didn’t starve, drown, or die of fever in the Amazon jungles were in constant danger of being killed by Indians.
When it became apparent the entire expedition could not go on, a small task force was commissioned to continue down the Amazon for a week. In command were Pedro de Ursua and his aide, Lope de Aguirre, sometimes referred to in history books as Aguirre the Madman or Aguirre the Traitor. They never returned.
Exactly what happened afterward is unclear but it seems that Aguirre murdered Ursua, declared the little band’s independence from Spain, and crowned a man named Fernando de Guzman, the ranking nobleman among them, ‘Emperor of El Dorado’. He eventually murdered Guzman and was himself murdered by his own men when they at last reached South America’s northeast coast.
There’s an eerie moment in the middle of the film when the Emperor, sitting in rags under an improvised shade on the makeshift raft that is carrying the party down the Amazon, picks at his fish dinner (the other men are starving) and thinks with satisfaction that his “empire” is now six times as large as Spain’s. No matter that he too may never eat again, nor that his empire is jungle swamp, the sense of power is so intoxicating that it overwhelms all other considerations.
It's as if Mr. Herzog were saying that civilization – our assumption that we have conquered nature or even come to some accommodation with it – is as ridiculous as the Emperor’s pleasure.
“Kinski brought with him a whole set of associations, behaviours and resources not only from the B-films, but also – more importantly, perhaps – from the recitations. As Herzog’s film unfolds, the speaking role of Aguirre expands from a few short lines of dialogue to a succession of monologues, so that the film itself increasingly relies on Kinski’s physical presence, his literal and figurative command of an audience by means of voice. In some sence, Aguirre follows a trajectory similar to that of Kinski’s stage career, from working with troupes, where he is surrounded by other actors, to going solo, where he may be surrounded by the crew (or a pack of monkeys) but his character is seen as increasingly isolated. In the end – and I am not giving anything away here – he speaks only to himself and to ‘us’ as witnesses. In terms of the cast, the entire film can be seen as one long process of elimination, until Kinski is the last one standing.”