Aguirre, the Wrath of God Review
Aguirre, the Wrath of God, the first collaboration between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, is certainly one of the most successful and striking of the five films the director and actor made together – Herzog going places and pushing performers and crew to places that no sane director around that time would go (with the exception of possibly of Coppola quite a bit later in Apocalypse Now), Kinski in a challenging role that brought-out his formidable talent and his infamous behaviour both on and off the screen.
The film is set in the Amazonian jungle in 1560. A group of Spanish conquistadors led by Pizarro set off on an expedition in search of El Dorado, the legendary Land of Gold, a tale spun by the Indians that incites the greed of the invaders. The difficulties of transporting a huge convoy of soldiers, priests, nobles, royals and 200 Indian slaves overland however is considerable, along with their livestock for food, cannons and even sedan-chairs. Pizarro decides to send a smaller group of 40 ahead downriver on rafts to search for El Dorado, led by Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) and his second in command Don Loge de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), along with a monk, Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) to spread the word of God to the natives. The group forge ahead, facing the dangers of the Amazonian jungle, the treacherous currents of the river and invisible and deadly native Indians, to say nothing of the internal struggles between Ursua and his second in command.
Filming on location, far from civilisation, in dangerous conditions with a huge crew and a miniscule budget, Herzog’s endeavour to make a film seems reckless and foolhardy to say the least – but if you think about it, it couldn’t be made any other way. A studio setting would have been a more conventional way to make the film and less risky, but it would have been too expensive. In order to convey the monumental folly of Pizarro’s and Aguirre’s expedition, it was necessary for Herzog to undertake the same mad journey, subjecting the crew, actors and extras to the similar hazards and hardships. The result is a realistic, unique and powerful film, capturing the awesome power of untameable nature and a constant sense of dread of the unknown, effectively assisted by the haunting Popol Vuh score.
Apart from the stunning location shooting, Kinski’s lead role is just as essential, the only person capable of portraying the arrogance of a man who believes he can subdue and overwhelm nature in the utterly vast pureness of the Amazon through the very force of his own will aligned with the will of God, thereby representing the self-righteous arrogance of those who came to convert the natives of South America to Christianity and their avarice in their exploitation of them for their own gain. Every inch of Kinski’s bearing as Aguirre exudes menace and malevolence, from the deep piercing looks to his crooked posture and twisted movements. It’s a mesmerising and a classic performance in a powerful and brilliant film.
The DVD is released on Region 2 in the UK as part of Anchor Bay’s Herzog/Kinski Collection. Also included in the boxset are Nosferatu, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde and Herzog’s documentary film about Kinski, My Best Fiend.
The film is presented in 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. It’s debatable whether it should be shown as 1.66:1, but the difference would be minimal (scenes from the film shown in anamorphic 1.77:1 on My Best Fiend look a little too tightly cropped – see review for comparison image). Colours in the transfer here are strong, the print in reasonably good condition with very little in the way of artefacts, dustspots or marks. Contrast and black levels are fine, however there is some fading, more noticeable in darker scenes, on the centre right of the frame. The picture is not always terribly sharp however, looking like an NTSC to PAL conversion with some motion artefacts.
There is a choice of soundtracks – German Dolby Digital 5.1, German Dolby Digital 2.0 surround or English Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. In theory, in the absence of anyone speaking Spanish, the English dub should do just as well as any of the other soundtracks, as few of the actors’ original voices are used and overdubbed anyway. The English dub however, since it was the first language of none of the principals, seems to lack some of the emotional force of the film’s dialogue. The German DD 5.1 remix is mainly centre speaker based, but it seriously overuses the surrounds for certain scenes such as the rapids sequence, is very distracting and not true to the sound levels of the original soundtrack. I personally settled for the German DD 2.0 surround, which seemed to offer the most satisfactory presentation of the soundtrack. It’s adequate, no better or worse I imagine than the filming conditions allowed the source material to be.
The main extra feature for the film is the Commentary by Werner Herzog, interviewed by Norman Hill. It’s a good commentary, Herzog providing fascinating insights and anecdotes into the making of the film, from the “borrowing” of a 35mm camera to make the film and the conditions in which they filmed, to the stories of Kinski shooting a loaded gun at the extras when they interrupted his sleep one night. The rest of the extra features consist of one Trailer (3:21) with options to watch it in German with or without subtitles or in English, and extensive biographical information on both Herzog and Kinski in the Talent Bios.
You have to admire Herzog’s nerve to take cast, crew and extras into the Andes on such an insane adventure under appalling conditions and dangers, with little budget and little real experience – yet the results are phenomenal. I think the film could certainly have a better DVD transfer than this, but the film’s force is not diminished and Herzog’s commentary adds another level of interest to a fascinating film.