In terms of madness, genius and daring, I doubt any film can beat the first of the five films Herzog and Kinski did together, or somehow delve deeper into the abyss of obsession, hallucination, power and imagination. In some ways Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) does stem from that same, deep and dangerous place, but as a film this is, in my view, incomparable. Aguirre is madness complete, but true genius in madness.
Much of this naturally has to do with the production itself, where the jungle became the deadly and dangerous cradle of folly to the crew just as it became to Aguirre and the others; that Kinski was a monomaniac only equalled by Herzog himself, and that everything, it seems, that usually becomes metaphoric in the film, turns upside down and is projected back into the film: the jungle is a metaphor for the lost self, and because the crew actually lost themselves during the making of the film, the jungle really becomes more than metaphor or allegory - it becomes what it originally only referred to.
But let us stop and marvel. We, at no risk, become witnesses to a journey that, because of the obsession, genius and luck is made to be cherished. Aguirre is an involving, hypnotic experience, indeed like a dream in a world so strange it becomes the stuff dreams are made of.
Some filmmakers are exquisitely talented and acute to the nuances of nature. Imamura is one, Malick another. The river is an important metaphor in Malick, in more films than one. I think seeing those through Herzog gives extra meaning without which it would be a shame to watch films such as The New World (2005).
Originally published on IMDB on 8 June 2014