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AGUIRRE:  THE WRATH OF GOD

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo, Ruy Guerra, Del Negro
Director:  Werner Herzog
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1 (German), Dolby 2 Channel Mono (English)
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  Theatrical Trailer,  Talent Files, Commentary Track
Length:  94 Minutes
Release Date:  October 24, 2000

Film ****

The conquistadors in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God seem to have no place in the Amazon jungle they’ve invaded.  They dress like knights in armor.  Their ladies accompany them along the deadly journey, for reasons never explained, looking as though they expect to find a social brunch at the end of the river.  The environment is beautiful, yet oppressive, from the never ending expanse of green trees to the brownness of the raging river, to the weighty Andes mountains that seem to disappear into the clouds above.  And death is all around—quiet, relentless, and victorious.  Like two other great films of the seventies, Apocalypse Now and Picnic at Hanging Rock, civilized man tries to bring his sensibility to an uncivilized world, which rejects both it and him with fatal results.

This film is the first of the five legendary collaborations between German director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski, and in many ways, this one is both the best and the most famous.  It extols Herzog’s fascination with man’s obsessive nature, and the pride that forces him to indulge in it all costs, as well as what those costs end up being.  This picture is based on a true expedition by Spain, led by General Pizarro down the Amazon through hostile ‘Indian’ territory in search of El Dorado, the fabled city of gold.  Although the Spanish monarchy figured this would be a similar triumph to their earlier conquest of the Aztec empire in Mexico, this adventure would not lead to gold, but to death.

It begins with a startling image of the conquistadors, their slaves and their women marching single file down the side of the Andes mountains.  They look like ants on an anthill coming down from the clouds.  We feel their journey to this point must have been treacherous, but it’s clearly going to get worse as they reach the base of the Amazon and prepare to navigate it.

At one point, two scouting parties on rafts are sent ahead to see if they can find anything—the discouraged general is ready to call it quits if they don’t.  One of the rafts gets trapped in an eddy, and can’t move forward or backward despite the efforts of the men.  The other party goes forward, finds a place where they can land on the eddy’s side of the river, and marches back to try and help.  It takes a full day to do so, and when they finally make it back the raft, it’s still trapped in the same spot.  The men, however, are all dead.  No explanations.

It is here that the second in command, Aguirre (Kinski) begins to believe he can conquer this river and the hostile Incas.  After a ritual mutiny, he leads his troops further and further down the river, and further and further into his own mad delusion.

The journey becomes more desperate, and more creepy as it goes along.  The natives are all around—sometimes we think we see them, other times we can’t.  The men continue to quietly die from their poisoned darts.  We never see or hear them.  One minute, a man is at his post, the next minute, he is lying dead.  Death stalks the invaders quietly for the duration of the picture.  One soldier gets his foot caught in a rope trap that drags his body upwards and out of frame.  We don’t see what happens to him, but the blood that begins to drip from above tells the tale. 

“I am the wrath of God,” Aguirre boldly claims.  His madness convinces him that he cannot fail in his mission.  As the raft goes further and further, it seems to sink more and more, leaving dark water and algae covering the wood.  The river, at one point, rises fifteen feet overnight, leaving no shore for the men to land on.  The food is running out.  And men continue to quietly drop.

By the end, death has claimed all but Aguirre, and in one of cinema’s most unforgettable final images, the camera circles his raft of corpses and monkeys, as he continues to proclaim his power and plan his new empire.

Simple words cannot express how haunting this picture is.  Herzog, who took his cast and crew on location to the hostile Peruvian jungles to make the film, has really captured an environment on film that oppresses and destroys those who would invade by pride.  It’s almost as if the jungle itself were a great body, and the conquistadors were a virus.  One by one, the body rids itself of the parasites and becomes healthy again.  The futility of the mission emanates from every frame, and the sense that the setting itself is a living, breathing, and judgmental character lends to a hypnotic picture of hopelessness.

Klaus Kinski is brilliant as Aguirre, the power mad usurper who would all but dare death to come after him, and death poetically leaves him alone with no one to control in the end.  This film not only marked the beginning of his working relationship with Herzog, but the start of their legendary squabbles.  Both men were reputed for hot tempers and stubbornness, and these traits reportedly plagued the already difficult conditions of the film.  Herzog would later claim that Peruvian natives offered to kill Kinski for him, and that he always regretted not taking them up on their offer.

It may have not been the best scenario from which to try and produce a film, but none can argue with the results.  The realism of the beautiful yet misty and eerie Amazon settings adds volumes to the picture’s quiet power, and doubtless, the performances of the actors.  Herzog might have been like Aguirre himself, leading his troops into hostile territory and refusing to quit until he found his own city of gold.  Fortunately for himself and for the history of cinema, he was able to find his way back with his treasure in tow.

Video ***1/2

I’m a little puzzled at the fact that this movie is presented in full frame format.  I could find nothing in my research to indicate what the proper screen ratio is supposed to be, but if I had to venture a guess, I would put it at 1.66:1 like many European films.  I could be wrong.  It’s difficult to tell if the film is misframed on the left and right edges, but vertically, it seems to work, with the ever present canopy of green in many of the shots, and in particular, the opening moments where the men march down the side of the mountain.  This is a mostly beautiful transfer from Anchor Bay, with much attention paid to the rich color palate.  Colors always look natural and well rendered, with no bleeding or distortion.  Images are generally very sharp and clear throughout with only occasional bits of noticeable grain.  Some shots naturally have a broken-up feel to them because of the ever-present rain in the picture; these are not a transfer problem.  I noticed no problems that I would attribute to compression, and the print itself seems to be in remarkable shape given the film’s age:  very little in the way of spots or debris.  If the framing is indeed correct, you can consider this a top notch quality offering worthy of such a significant film.

Audio ***

The new 5.1 German soundtrack is the best listening choice on this disc.  The creepy music by Popol Vuh sounds terrific when spread across all channels.  Most of the rear stage is used for ambient effects, like the sound of the river or the wildlife.  Given the film’s concept of man enveloped by nature, these effects are welcome and definitely enhance the experience.  The subwoofer is mostly quiet, but there are one or two explosions that bring it into play.  Dialogue doesn’t seem to be a problem (and if you prefer, you can listen in English mono), but dynamic range is fairly limited.  This is a mostly quiet picture, which is an aspect that helps accent the surreal eeriness.

Features **

The disc’s true highlight is an audio commentary with director Werner Herzog, which is a real treat for students.  There is also the trailer, with choice of German or English language, and talent files on Herzog and Kinski.

Summary:

Aguirre: The Wrath of God is a cinematic landmark and a highly influential film that was given its deserved treatment by Anchor Bay on this DVD.  This quiet, strange and unsettling masterpiece from Werner Herzog is one no film fan should pass up.