Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Blu-ray (1972/2015)

Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Blu-ray (1972/2015)

Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo
Studio: Werner Herzog Films/ Shout Factory! SF 15684 [3/17/15]
Music: Popol Vuh
Video: 1.85:1 for 16:9 1080p HD color
Audio: English or German DTS-HD MA 2.0, German 5.1 DTS-HD MA
Subtitles: English
Extras: English commentary track by Herzog, German commentary track by Herzog with Laurens Straub, Theatrical trailer, Gallery of stills
Length: 94 minutes
Rating: *****

Herzog was only 28 when he made this film with a 35mm camera stolen from a German film school he was attending. He never believed in storyboards and allowed things that occurred in the rough environments he often sought out, plus actor’s and extras’ reactions as moving the plot along, and shooting things for the film as they happened. For example, the cinematographer noticed there were rats with little babies on the raft on which they were shooting, and Herzog said, quick – get some closeups of them for the film.

Just before filming the long-shot opening scenes of Aguirre and his conquistadors and indians making their way down the dangerous trail near Machu Picchu, Herzog and some of his main crew were scheduled to take a flight there, but were turned away at the last moment due to overcrowding. That flight crashed with 94 fatalities.  He used 450 extras, and many people had to be flown out due to altitude sickness. This was the first film he shot in the jungle, which he used to great effect and continued in some of this other films. It was also the first of his films which used as its score the haunting music of Florian Fricke, better known as Popol Vuh. Herzog had known the volatile Klaus Kinski since age 13, and on this shoot Kinski was his usual crazed, over-the-top self, but absolutely perfect for the role of the mad and power-hungry Spanish leader. He threatens to kill any in the group who refuse to continue on with him and want to go back.

Aguirre takes place in the mid-16th century, after Pizarro has annihilated the Inca empire. According to Herzog’s script, the indians (when they learned how crazy the Spanish were for gold trinkets) made up the story of El Dorado – the city of gold – to get the conquistadors off their backs and off on a wild goose chase. The conquistadors are obviously desperate and totally unprepared in their search for El Dorado, which takes them drifting down tributaries of the Amazon on rafts (which are falling apart) made by Indian tribesmen. An example of how Herzog used the actual happenings in the film was that at one point the river rose about six feet overnight and took away their original rafts, so he had the story include something about disagreement among the soldiers on building new rafts, which were finally built. Another is that one of the indians showed Herzog a tiny sleeping baby sloth, which he immediately used in the film – Don Lope de Aguirre presenting it to his daughter as a gift.

The search for El Dorado is really not the main thing here. It is the amazing cinematography and the haunting, surreal feeling of the explorers falling into fever, starvation and hallucinations as the raft slowly drifts on. At one point they spy an old ship high in a tree, and it’s not known for certain if it is real or a hallucination. They can’t go ashore because most of the jungle is flooded by the river. The indians on the shores can’t usually be seen, but their arrows kill off half the people on the raft, including Aguirre’s daughter. Aguirre is protected by his full suit of armor.

Herzog has frequently done mad things like this, and this time it resulted in one of the greatest films ever made. His commentary track (in English) is absolutely fascinating (his story of how he got the 50 small monkeys for the last part of the film is amazing), and he allows some of the Popol Vuh score to come thru. The Blu-ray restoration is also excellent, with great images and resolution.

—John Sunier

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