Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes) [DVD]
Screenplay : Werner Herzog
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1972
Stars : Klaus Kinski (Don Lope de Aguirre), Ruy Guerra (Don Pedro de Ursua), Del Negro (Brother Gaspar de Carvajal), Peter Berling (Don Fernando de Guzman), Alejandro Repulles (Gonzalo Pizarro), Cecilia Rivera (Flores), Helena Rojo (Inez), Edward Roland (Okello), Dan Ades (Perucho), Armando Polanha (Armando)
Since the earliest days of cinema, one of the principle rules of filmmaking is that the actors never look directly into the camera. In Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Klaus Kinski, starring as the titular character, breaks that rule near the end of the film when he looks directly into Werner Herzog's camera and, by proxy, directly at the audience, and declares, "I am the wrath of God." It is a startling, bone-chilling moment in a stunning film.
Aguirre takes place in 1561, after the Spaniards, under Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles), have conquered the Incan empire in Peru. The story is loosely based on actual events, although writer/director Herzog uses historical characters freely. Its main character, Don Lope de Aguirre, is really not much more than a footnote in the history of the Spanish conquistadors, but Herzog turns him into a symbol to represent the self-destructive human desire to conquer the unconquerable.
The film opens with an amazing long shot of a line of soldiers and explorers making their way down the face of a mist-enshrouded mountain. The shot immediately establishes one of Herzog's central themes: the smallness of man in the face of nature. Shot on location in the rain forests of Peru, Aguirre is a film of great scope, even though it was made on a relatively miniscule budget of only $360,000. Herzog, only 28 at the time, demanded a great deal from his actors and the other filmmakers, and the result is a nightmarish evocation of greedy, determined men forging into the unknown and being swallowed whole by a nature they were arrogant enough to think they could vanquish.
The main narrative follows a small group of Spanish explorers who are searching for the fabled golden city of El Dorado. They are led by Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra), whose second-in-command is Aguirre (Kinski). Other members of the party include Ursua's wife, Inez (Helena Rojo), Aguirre's 15-year-old daughter, Flores (Cecilia Rivera), a fat nobleman named Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling), and an African slave named Okello (Edward Roland). The group also includes Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro), a Catholic monk whose diary entries supply the narration.
Travelling deep into the heart of South America on large wooden rafts, the explorers encounter setback after setback. Early on, one of the rafts gets caught in the rapids and is stranded on the opposite side of the river from the rest of the party. When the others manage to cross the river, they find that everyone on it has been mysteriously slaughtered. Later on, the river rises 15 feet in one night and sweeps all the rafts away. Native Indians are constantly hiding in the forests along either side of the river, and many of the explorers are killed by silent arrows and spears that appear to come out of nowhere.
Eventually, Ursua proposes that they turn back, but Aguirre wants to press on. Fueled by feverish dreams of wealth and power and invoking previous conquerors like Hernando Cortez, he launches a mutiny in order to keep the exploration going. With Guzman installed as his puppet leader, Aguirre drives the conquistadors deeper down the river, destroying anything that might stand in his way.
Disease and madness begin to set in on the remaining members of the party, and Herzog allows the film to slowly lose its grip on reality, becoming more detached and surreal (there is a definite connection here to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam reimagining of it in Apocalypse Now). The final shot is a stunning evocation of Aguirre the unrelenting madman, surrounded by the corpses of his followers, still standing tall on the decrepit remains of his raft, ranting about his new kingdom that we know has been an illusion all along while hundreds of spider monkeys swarm around him.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a film of great power and raw brutality. Herzog brings it to life in stark, realistic terms by shooting on location; he makes incredible use of the natural jungle, turning it into its own character that overwhelms all others. In the title role, Klaus Kinski does not often speak, but he has an overwhelming presence. With his strange, stilted walk, his fierce blue eyes, and his extreme, chiseled features, Kinski is a formidable presence on screen. He is, as Herzog once described him, "the only true demon of the cinema."
As much as Aguirre is a strikingly visual film, Herzog also pays close attention to the soundtrack. In addition to the haunting, forlorn, electronic human choir that supplies the music (which was written and performed by Popol Vuh), Herzog uses the natural sounds of the jungle to great effect. Not only does he create a sense of ambience with the various chirpings and cries of birds, but he makes silence work for him. There are long stretches of silence at various points in the film, which are usually followed by sudden, unexplained bursts of violence.
It is this quality of suddenness juxtaposed with the otherwise carefully paced narrative (Herzog often holds shots for an uncomfortably long period of time) that gives the film much of its power. Like its insanely resolute protagonist, Aguirre, the Wrath of God is unstable and unpredictable, yet absolutely unswerving. It is a masterpiece of haunting existential cinema.
|Aguirre, the Wrath of God DVD|
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)|
Dolby 2.0 Surround (German)
Dolby 1.0 Monaural (English)
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by director Werner Herzog|
Original theatrical trailer
|Distributor||Anchor Bay Entertainment|
|Aguirre, the Wrath of God is presented on this DVD in full-frame (1.33:1), which is apparently its original aspect ratio. This transfer is a significant improvement over what has previously been available. For the most part, the image is sharp and clean, with a high level of detail that really brings the exotic, foreboding jungle environment to life. Colors look generally good, from the muddy brown waters of the river to the endless shades of green in the forest, and flesh tones appear normal. As the film was somewhat low-budget and is almost 30 years old, some scenes do not reflect the same image quality as others, and some of the darker portions of the screen tend to betray some graininess and fade into gray. Nevertheless, this transfer really allows you to admire the full visual sumptuousness of Herzog's visionary film.|
|The soundtrack has been given the full Dolby Digital 5.1 surround treatment (the German-language soundtrack, anyway), and while it is not a particularly "showy" soundtrack, it enhances the viewing experience greatly. Most of the sound effects in Aguirre involve background jungle noises (birds calling, trees swaying in the wind, the river rushing), all of which is nicely spaced out across the surround speakers to create an enveloping, ambient environment. There are a few explosions that are given an extra boost from the low-frequency effects channel, but nothing particularly earth-shattering. The soundtrack is clean and almost completely free of hiss, which is important considering the importance of silence in the sound design. The dialogue, which appears to have been looped even in the German version, is always clear and understandable. The German track is also available in a 2.0 Dolby surround mix, but those who want to hear the film in English will have to make do with a 1.0 monaural English-language soundtrack that doesn't sound very good. Stick with the German version.|
|The disc comes with an excellent running audio commentary by director Werner Herzog, who speaks excellent English. The commentary is moderated by Norman Hill, who asks Herzog questions to keep the commentary flowing. Herzog discusses many aspects of the experience making Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which was, by all accounts, one of the more difficult shoots in movie history. Herzog proudly points out on numerous occasions how his style differs from "Hollywood" style, he claims to have written the script in two days and made up most of the dialogue while filming, and he also addresses some of the legendary rumors about his often antagonistic relationship with Klaus Kinski. Herzog is refreshingly frank, and he puts to rest the rumor that he pulled a gun on Kinski when the star threatened to leave (Herzog says he just threatened to kill Kinski if he left, and Kinski added the part about the gun to boost his ego). |
The disc also include the original theatrical trailer, available in either German (with or without English subtitles) or English. The trailer is a strange, clumsy piece of work, as it does not feel like a trailer at all. It includes a short bit of narration at the beginning, and the rest is composed of long sequences from the movie edited together with no apparent rhyme or reason. Then, it just ends. No credits. Not even the title of the movie. It just ends.
This disc also includes talent biographies of Herzog and Kinski.
Copyright © 2000 James Kendrick