The film starts off with a long trail winding down a mountain, we see men in armour carrying weapons, slaves dressed in colourful clothing carrying larger armoury and animals, and strangely 2 woman who are dressed in very fine clothes. The first 10 minutes is just this, walking along and showing us just how difficult the terrain is getting.
The story is about a journey into the Amazon looking for the legendary El Dorado, the city of gold. When supplies run low with the main expedition, the leader sends a group down the river to scout ahead, and if not back within a week will be considered lost; the expeditions leader, Ursua; the second in command, Aguirre; a monk to help spread the word of God, Carvajal; and a nobleman to represent the Royal House of Spain, Guzman. These people with a handful of soldiers and slaves set off down the deadly stream on their quest.
The small scout group soon falls apart and put back together in fear of Aguirre, how he betrays not only his small group at the start, looking for glory, but how by the end he betrays Spain by trying to set up his own empire. His own ambition and pride is causes him to self-destruct, causes more death at the promise of riches, fame, and power, using Hernan Cortes’ conquest of Mexico as a reason to disobey and keep going. Due to his actions Aguirre refers to himself as “The great traitor”, a name that is also sometimes given to Lucifer for his betrayal against God; this was as well, due to pride.
The film goes by slowly, nothing is rushed; everything feels as if it just drifts by at its own comfortable pace. The sheer size of the terrain they have to explore feels vast enough so that even if by a numerable account they achieve their distance quota, it feels as if they’ve made no progress at all. You can see the toll it takes on everyone, especially Aguirre, you can slowly see the madness overtake him in a way that I started to pity him and his crew.
We feel the dread of what has happened and what is happening, the betrayal of men and country, the ruthless driving forward through ambition and fear, the power of nature over those who continue on, and worst of all, the clamouring madness that all of these fruitless trails bring.
Throughout the film we feel that this voyage is doomed, but it keeps going, showing us how bad it gets, the hungry, the fever, the desperation, the death, the weight of it all, until at the end, when Aguirre asks “Who is with me?”, we aren’t sure who he is talking to because as the scene pulls back we see that he is literally the only one left on his feet; showing us that he still hasn’t given up, but is that his will or his madness talking?