Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (Werner Herzog, 1972) Full time force of nature and part time filmmaker Werner Herzog has a career filled with eerily atmospheric masterpieces of almost every style, genre, and form. Yet, if ever we find ourselves in some sort of movie apocalypse and only one Herzog movie can be saved, that title must be Aguirre, The Wrath Of God. Herzog’s career was up and running by the time he descended into the jungle to make this his first genuine masterpiece and when he emerged on a raft surrounded by monkeys he was a legend. It’s an encapsulation of everything that the filmmaker does well (including a collection of insane and possibly fictionalized behind the scenes stories) and also boasts quite possibly the finest performance Klaus Kinski’s career. Aguirre is a brutal, thoughtful, poetic, and terrifying work of art that never possibly could have existed unless Herzog decided to point a camera at his twisted imagination. The director might have equaled the remarkable achievement of Aguirre several times in his career, but he never topped it.
The story is deceptively simple. It follows Kinski’s Spanish conquistador Aguirre who recently triumphed with his army in battle and has now been ordered to trek through the jungle in search of the mythical city of El Dorado and the untold riches therein. The journey is treacherous from the start, with an unforgiving jungle offering little more than immense physical and philosophical difficulties challenging the journey. Eventually a death toll mounts and Aguirre’s mind becomes as lost as his quest. That’s pretty much it and yet the film is as complex thematically as it is simplistic in narrative. Herzog was clearly influenced by Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness and Aguirre would quickly inspire Francis Ford Coppola to make Apocalypse Now. It’s hard to say which work explores those shared themes better, but given that one of the major concepts of all three is an exploration of the cold brutality of nature, you can assume that Herzog nailed that one. After all, give Herzog 30 seconds and a microphone and he’ll be sure to let you know how horrendous nature can be.
Like Fitzcarraldo, the most immediately striking aspect of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God is the physical brutality of the production. From the astounding opening shots of an army wiggling down the edge of a mountain, it’s clear that this production was as dangerous as the journey it staged. Filth, grit, pain, and exhaustion radiates from the screen and at times it blurs the lines between fiction and documentary. The second most striking aspect is Klaus Kinski’s devastating performance. Forever caught between stoic silence and volcanic explosion, Kinski is a wild and unpredictable beast at the center of Werzog very deliberately paced and hypnotic film. He’s a constant element of danger and a physical embodiment of insanity that’s impossible to take your eyes off of (which was important given that mood and spectacle easily could have dominated the picture). Beyond the surface dangers and central performance, the movie is filled with layers of meaning and moments of visual poetry that Herzog never fully explains. It’s a mystery of a movie to be experienced and interpreted in many different ways. At times it’s terrifyingly real, at other times is archly stylized. Some scenes are quietly contemplative, others viscerally thrilling. The project was a bold announcement of a new filmmaking voice from Werner Herzog and has lost none of its power in the decades that followed. Love or loath it, Aguirre: Wrath Of God is one of those movies that everyone needs to see to even consider themselves a cinephile.
Thankfully, there’s never been a better way to get this classic into your eyeholes and under your belt than the beautiful new Blu-ray from Shout Factory. The academy 1.33:1 has been maintained (Herzog had no choice of aspect ratio given that the camera he used was stolen), but beyond that the footage has been beautifully restored. The rich colors of the jungle and filthy details of the period costumes pop off the screen like never before. The production might have been rough and tumble, but the beauty of Herzog’s images here have rarely been equaled. Given that the mood and atmosphere of Aguirre are so defined by the visuals, the impact of the piece is even stronger in HD and Shout Factory have done an extraordinary job ensuring that viewers now have the best version possible on homevideo. Special features are slim, but strong. There are two audio commentaries included by Herzog with a moderator (one in English and one in German) and surprisingly there’s very little overlap between the two tracks with the English track focused more on production tales and the German track dedicated to subtext and meaning. Toss in a trailer and you’ve got a damn fine Blu-ray for a genuine masterpiece of world cinema. If you enjoy Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski, or just physically treacherous filmmaking, then you’re already a fan of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God whether you’ve seen it or not. So, the only real question is why don’t you own this disc yet, dummy?