The Andes are thick with fog, its white all-encompassing tendrils consuming the conquistadors descending into its depths. Even as it clears, revealing the pale blue sky above a mottled green canopy and rotten brown rivers, the atmosphere of portentous doom remains. Only Aguirre, “the wrath of God” (Klaus Kinski) seems immune to the heavy weight of insidious death; he stands alone as a cool white sun in an infinity of suffering.
Werner Herzog’s film travels down the river with him, not towards a heart of darkness but consumed by it. Nature here is morose, unfeeling. Deadly, as river rapids consume a raft of Spaniards. The insanity that Coppola would channel in Apocalypse Now takes to seed here, humanity battered relentlessly by the folly of ambition and the cruelty of colonialism.
It’s not quite a masterpiece. Herzog’s camera – splattered with water and swirling between his deranged cast – makes the dreadful reality of filming clear, but the unconvincing splashes of red paint combine with a post-dubbed soundtrack – absent natural ambiance – to sap the film of the verisimilitude it requires. Though, as we settle into the existential ennui of the story’s conclusion, perhaps its inconsistent reality is actually entirely consistent with Herzog’s approach.