Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Photo: Pacific Film Archive

Many would argue that Martin Scorsese is our greatest living filmmaker, but for my money (and with all due respect to the estimable Mr. Scorsese) that title belongs to Werner Herzog. The subject of a new series at Pacific Film Archive (Infinite Horizons: The Films of Werner Herzog, beginning on Thursday, Nov. 9 and running through the end of February), he’s directed an astonishing 50 features — plus short subjects and television series — since 1962. 

Infinite Horizons: The Films of Werner Herzog, Pacific Film Archive

Such is the breadth of Herzog’s filmography that it’s hard to know where to start: from dramas to documentaries, there’s much to choose from, and PFA can’t possibly show it all. Nonetheless, they’ve curated an impressive selection of his work, including 1972’s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), screening at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 9 and again at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 2. Herzog will be attending showings of eight of his films, including Aguirre, between Thursday and Sunday and reading from his new memoir, Every Man for Himself and God Against All, on Friday.

I first saw Aguirre at Berkeley’s much missed rep house, the UC Theatre, sometime in the early 1980s. As an impressionable 20-something, I left that screening convinced I’d just seen one of the greatest films ever made. I’ve watched the film many times since, and haven’t changed my mind: I still think Aguirre is a perfect film. 

If you’ve never seen it, Aguirre, the Wrath of God tells the story of the titular 16th century conquistador (based on the real-life Gonzalo Pizarro) and his quest for the mythical gold of El Dorado, hidden deep (or so claimed Muisca mythology) within the jungles of darkest Peru. Played by the volcanic and deeply disturbed Klaus Kinski — who made several other films with Herzog, including Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde, and was the subject of Herzog’s 1999 documentary My Best Fiend — Aguirre leads a group of soldiers, clergy and court bigwigs on a fruitless search for riches. It’s a tale of humankind at its basest. 

Accompanied by the haunting, otherworldly sounds of Popol Vuh (a German musical collective founded by Florian Fricke and named after the Mayan creation myth), Herzog’s masterpiece relentlessly details one man’s obsessive folly — and the abject stupidity of those who chose to follow him. Unsurprisingly, there is no gold at the end of the rainbow: instead, Aguirre is left adrift on a raft full of chattering monkeys and corpses, where he stares into the abyss without blinking … and fantasizes about conquering Mexico. No lessons, it seems, have been learned.

As Roger Ebert eloquently wrote in 1999, “[Herzog’s] stories begin in a straightforward manner, but their result is incalculable, and there is no telling where they may lead: They conclude not in an “ending” but in the creation of a mood within us — a spiritual or visionary feeling. I believe he wants his audiences to feel like detached observers, standing outside time, saddened by the immensity of the universe as it bears down on the dreams and delusions of man.” Herzog veterans and neophytes will both want to explore this series, but don’t delay — some screenings have already sold out.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...