I suppose one of the most powerful scenes in this film was at the beginning when we see the Spanish soldiers, and many chained slaves, traipsing through the thick forest carrying the two women in their carriage-box things. At that moment, something became clear to me: the absolute ridiculousness of the colonizers’ absurd attempts to not only conquer but to bring their inappropriate cultural practices into an entirely inhospitable and inappropriate environment. And even at the very end, when everyone but Aguirre seems to be on the brink of death, we still see that awful box that Aguirre’s daughter was being carried in at the beginning–certainly it’s a metaphor for a coffin for them all as they lie there soon-to-be-rotting on the deck, with Aguirre bloated with an inappropriate sense of power over an environment that he cannot even fathom due to his maniacal delusions.
Equally powerful was the scene when the Priest introduces the two Natives to The Bible, or the Word of God as they put it. When the male Native puts the book up to his ear to “hear” the word of God, thereby not reacting the way he “should have,” they kill him and the Priest says “It’s so difficult to convert the Natives.”
What this says to me is that the purpose of “converting” was not so much to help the Natives “understand” the Word of God, but just to impose power and control over them. Obivously, history has proven this awful truth over and over again.
I find it interesting that Aguirre, once he causes Ursua to be shot (therefore it is a mutiny), that he does not take control of the expedition, but rather stays as second-in-command to Guzman whom is appointed “Emperor of El Dorado.” First of all, it is absurd to be the Emperor of a place you haven’t even found yet. This goes to show how hubristic the leadership of this party is, like all Colonizers are, I suppose. As the film rolls on, Guzman begins cataloguing all of his new lands (as he writes in his ledger on the boat), declaring that pretty much everything that is along the river is his. Well, not too much later the river doesn’t become his, but he becomes part of the river in a fitting peripatetic moment of divine justice. Instead of cleansing his soul of its sins (in the confession box), he cleanses his bowels in the makeshift latrine on the boat, and after he emerges, he is shot with a Native’s arrow and found dead by his shipmates. No salvation for Guzman!
In fact, there is no salvation for anyone on that expedition (except perhaps the women–one who is adamantly against Aguirre’s plot, and the other who sits there like a good girl should and does nothing???). So drunk with a megalomaniacal sense of power, Aguirre declares (to the monkeys) that HE is the wrath of god and that he will marry his own daughter in order to found a pure race. His earlier insistence on staying second-in-command speaks to his parallel belief that he is the “wrath” of god, and not god himself. I interpret the wrath of god to be that part of god’s personality or character that keeps men on the Old Testament straight path–the part that causes plagues and floods, and punishes the unworthy. But in his hubristic delusion, he fails to see the obvious–that he is just a soldier of Spain in search of a non-existent utopia.
I suppose we should think of Hitler here, who despite his own low cultural/social status, was able to transcend to a god-like status. Perhaps that is too obvious a connection. Or we could think of ourselves and our own delusions of grandeur, and the ways in which “we” (i.e. our own societies: past, present & future) exploit and “enslave” others in order to perfect our own sense of power.
Whichever it is, it seems to me that Herzog is telling us to look at the absurdity of the situations presented in this film and try to make sense of it in our world. Like Shakespeare gives us a play-within-a-play to give perspective to the characters he is writing into life, Herzog gives us a film within the diegesis of our lives to give us perspective on our own absurd notions of power, religion, culture, civilization, and just plain living.
I couldn’t help but think of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto as I was watching this film–as that film ends, so this one begins, in a sense.