Mythic, reckless and spellbinding, Aguirre: The Wrath of God is everything it claims to be; a tall tale told by an idiot concealing a taller tale from a raving madman, a director’s plagued endeavors to drag cast and crew through the South American heart of darkness to tell the story of a conquistador’s doomed quest for the fabled El Dorado, Werner Herzog’s sound versus Klaus Kinski’s fury. Two parallel legends feeding off each other, creating a haunting cinematic experience the likes of which have never been replicated. You can feel the effects of Herzog’s lunacy, of Kinski’s rage; present on the haggard faces of the cast and in the increasingly delirious visuals. It’s the very thought of impending, inescapable doom, the only thing more terrifying being the man charging into it full speed ahead. There’s a moment where the widowed noblewoman, resigned to fate, elects to march away from the madness into the unforgiving jungle, her actions exercising the only free will she has left; the chance to meet death on her own terms. Without so much as a declaration or an eyebrow raised, she just quietly walks away and disappears, swallowed whole by the jungle and the film itself. A shiver runs down your spine. This is Aguirre at its bleakest and most harrowing.
But not bleak without beauty. Aguirre, for all its insanity, is remarkably intimate. A butterfly lands on the finger of a weary soldier. A native musician repeats a simple, mesmerizing tune on his flute. Herzog on occasion lets his mind and camera wander from the path of despair long enough to capture these rare instances of tranquility, reminders that even when caught up in the most dire of circumstances, we can still make our own kind of peace, if only for a little while. This is why you don’t finish Aguirre feeling drained, but very much alive. In the final legendary moments of the film, Herzog draws back from Aguirre, forsaking him on his raft littered with monkeys and death, and spins the camera in delirious circles around the scene, dancing at last on Kinski’s grave. And right along with that camera, we’re pulled out of the vortex, reminded that we’re still spectators in this horror show, spared like Ishmael on the coffin from going down with the ship. It’s an oddly exhilarating end to the unrelenting descent of Aguirre: The Wrath of God, which comes so very close to claiming the distinction of my favorite film of all time.