From its first shot, here is a film that invites its own phenomenology, another potential description or requirement of the art film. We slowly zoom into a line of men descending a South American mountain. The aspect ratio must be 4:3, because the screen is working with an unusual vertical movement, human vertical movement. It’s a fairly long take, working hard and slowly just as its subjects are, some of them collapsing and dying due to the climate change (the slaves). The musical soundtrack provides an ethereal ambience, far from the clichéd triumphalist orchestral music one might expect in a film with this kind of story. But the method of telling the story, which includes lots of dark humor, works nearly as a satire. It undermines the journey of these conquerors, renders it absurd, but absurd in a distinctly human way. Whereas Apocalypse Now transforms its subjects into animals, Herzog doesn’t sink into that sort of fatalism, that broad-strokes kind of nihilism. Instead, Aguirre keeps a variety of human types present from beginning to end, from the mad, power-hungry Aguirre, to his silent daughter, to the wise black slave used as a pawn, to the fat figurehead “emperor” whose very introduction to us is a complete contradiction. (The off-screen diegetic narration proclaims him a great hero, while we watch him sitting on a log, fat, stuffing his face.) The priest provides the film’s non-diegetic narration, himself another contradiction, perpetually proclaiming their mission as one of bringing salvation to the savages, all the while with a glimmer of crazy in his own eye, greedy for a land filled with gold. Apparently this film inspired something of Coppola’s war film of a few years later, but whatever else Apocalypse Now is worth, it misses the subtlety and highly effective irony of which Aguirre is chock-full.