“Aguirre: the Wrath of God” has one of the most soul-jarring openings in the history of cinema—as the wafting mist parts, we see a line of ant-like human figures descending the steep side of a mountain; then the camera pans down to reveal that these are an expedition of 16th-Century Spanish soldiers and enslaved Indians on their way to seek the legendary El Dorado gold, carrying with them not only their metal armors, swords, and muskets, but also horses, cannons, chickens, pigs, and llamas. A patient Werner Herzog allows us plenty of time to digest this stunning visual feast of historical absurdity, such as the images of two daintily dressed Spanish noble ladies (one played by a girl, a non-actor, cast right out of a Peruvian high school) being transported via carriages on the shoulders of the Indians in the midst of a godforsaken Amazon forest.
The Herzogian brand of humor is one that makes you laugh and cry at the same time. For instance, during a sudden attack by the Indians, a soldier reacts to a long spear piercing through his heart not by crying or moaning but by wondering aloud about how “long spears are now in fashion”. “Herzog is as crazy as his films,” claimed a friend of mine who once had a close encounter with him in a Hollywood party. It does require some kind of insanity to make “Aguirre: the Wrath of God”, in which Herzog literally grabs us, the audience, by the collar and drags us into the deep South American jungle and leaves us with his nutty band of actors, including the wildest of the wild, Klaus Kinski, in an unforgettable performance as a blood-thirsty Spanish military commander. No cinematic images are more haunting than the ending of this movie when a crazed Klaus Kinski, surrounded by his dead soldiers and a swarm of monkeys, surveys what he has “conquered” on a raft floating down the river to nowhere.