This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
From its first shot to its last, the German writer-director Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) is a great, visionary film. The story is about an off-shoot expedition from Gonzalo Pizarro’s 16th-century quest for the mythical El Dorado. Herzog and cinematographer Thomas Mauch’s depiction of the Andes and the Amazon River is spellbinding and, at times, hallucinatory. The imagery beautifully dramatizes how insignificant and puny these would-be conquerors are in the face of nature’s grandeur. Their hubris in trying to navigate this supremely dangerous environment is a horrifyingly absurd spectacle. Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), the expedition’s leader, is the most horrifyingly absurd of all. He’s possessed of the insane delusion that the conquest of El Dorado will confirm his greatness, and it is but the first step through which he will fulfill his destiny of becoming ruler of the New World. Kinski’s performance is a tremendous portrait of megalomania. His intense eyes, sculptural features, and overall volatility make him seem demonic. But in this jungle, he and his crew turn out to be less than the monkeys in the trees. The film’s depiction of obsession and futility in striving against nature is awe-inspiring--perhaps the closest movies have come to the achievement of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The haunting electronic score is by the German band Popol Vuh.