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Aguirre, Wrath Of God

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    Ian Jane
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  • Aguirre, Wrath Of God (BFI)



    Released by: BFI
    Released on: May 19th, 2014.
    Director: Werner Herzog
    Cast: Klaus Kinski, Ray Guerra,
    Year: 1972
    Purchase From Amazon

    The Movie:

    You'd think that when two lunatics head into the jungle to make movie based on an obscure historical figure, with the intent to capture things authentically particularly in regards to location, that things could go horribly wrong. Tempers could flare, egos could clash, a small crew working with a fairly low budget could easily find themselves in over their heads and lives could very well wind up at risk. And in many ways, this is exactly what happened when a twenty-eight year old Werner Herzog cast a fairly unhinged Klaus Kinski as the lead in his 1972 masterpiece, Aguirre, Wrath Of God.

    The story begins with one of the most amazing opening shots you're ever likely to see as the camera captures the voyage of a group of sixteenth century Spanish conquistadors, led by Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés), traversing the slope of a Peruvian mountain side in the jungle, heavy fog rolling across the background as a portentous foreshadowing of what's to come. They make their way towards the Amazon River in hopes that it will lead them to El Dorado, the fabled land of gold. The Spanish soldiers and the native guides accompanying them on their trip build rafts and head down the river through rapids, deeper into the jungle. Along the way, a power struggle begins to take shape between Pizarro and a soldier named Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski).

    When it is decided that the group while try to head back to civilization, Aguirre pushes back, insisting that they continue on their mission and appointing Don Pedro de Ursua (Ray Guerra) as leader. Some of the men side with him, others do not but eventually he, his daughter Florés (Cecilia Rivera), Ursua's mistress Inez (Helena Rojo), a priest named Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) and a group of followers forge ahead in search of what Aguirre insists is their destiny. The further into the jungle they go, the worse things get for the dwindling group…

    With many scenes having been shot in a documentary style, Herzog's film really 'puts you there' in a lot of the film's more intense moments, particularly those that occur on the rafts in the latter half of the movie. As Aguirre's mental state becomes more and more obviously frayed and the men continue to say nothing and go along with him, it becomes evident that there's no way that this will end well for anyone - yet we can't take our eyes off of this even while the jungle seems to encroach around the group and cannibalistic natives, most of whom are never seen attack, from the riverbanks. Aguirre remains defiant through all of this, those at his side obeying as if they were blind to his hubris and his insanity, showing character traits that could be seen as parallels to the way in which Adolf Hitler rallied the Germans behind his own insane cause three decades prior.

    In situations such as the one portrayed in the movie, charisma and intensity count for a lot not only in the historical events that inspire this film but in the way in which Kinski plays the character in question. Herzog directed him in such a way as to have him move like a crab and he really does do just that throughout the movie. He also walks with a limp, but never without confidence. He swirls in and out of the frame sometimes seemingly at random and on the brink of exploding and after seeing the film it's impossible to imagine anyone else bringing to the role what Kinski managed to provide. His work here is masterful and it is complimented perfectly by Herzog's directorial style and cinematography by Thomas Mauch. All of this is wrapped up in an ethereal score from Popol Vuh (the band would work with Herzog into the nineties and collaborate with him on some of his finest pictures).

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Aguirre arrives on Blu-ray from the BFI in 1.33.1 fullframe in AVC encoded 1080p high definition on a 50GB Blu-ray disc and generally it looks excellent. Colors are nice and well defined, quite bold without ever looking oversaturated while the black levels stay strong and deep avoiding crush and maintaining good shadow detail in the film's darker moments. The lush greens of the jungle really dominate the film but they look fantastic, while skin tones appear lifelike and natural throughout. Grain is evident throughout the movie but outside of a few minor specks here and there you won't notice any actual print damage, at least nothing worth complaining about. Detail is great, you can notice every little piece of stubble on Kinski's ragged face and note the rust and mud that accumulates on the armor of the different characters in the film. Fibers in the costumes are evident as are splinters in the wood used to make the rafts. The image is very strong here, the movie looks great.

    Audio options are provided in English and German LPCM Mono and German DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio with subtitles provided in English only. To this reviewer's ears, the German Mono track is the winner but depending on your own personal preferences you might prefer the 5.1 mix as it opens up the mix in spots, mostly in how the score is placed. All three tracks sound very good and feature crisp, clear dialogue and are free of any hiss or distortion. The score sounds quite good, it has better depth even in the single channel option than you'd probably expect it to, while little details like the chirping of a bird in an otherwise silent scene somehow takes on an even more ominous tone than ever before thanks to the added clarity and power in the lossless audio provided here.

    The extras start off with a commentary track featuring Herzog and moderator Norman Hill that was originally released on the Anchor Bay DVD years back. For those who haven't heard this track before, it's pretty much essential listening. Hill is smart enough to let Herzog do most of the talking, but when the director clams up here and there (it doesn't happen often) he's got a smart question or observation at the ready. As such, we get a lively and very informative track as we learn how the director made the movie with a stolen 35mm camera on a budget of $360k and a small team in the middle of a South American jungle. Herzog, of course, shares some great stories about working with the temperamental Kinski, talking about how he had to threaten to kill the actor to get him to cooperate and discussing how Kinski fired at some of the extras with a rifle when they were making too much noise one night. He also discusses the contributions of the other cast members, talks about the difficulties of working with a large quantity of tiny monkeys, the intricacies of sedating a horse, how Herzog considers storyboarding a 'disease of Hollywood' and why you must soldier on for the film after being bitten one hundred and fifty times by an army of fire ants. It really is a great dissection of the film that covers the locations, how certain shots were achieved, multiple near death experiences and working with native tribesmen who tended to drink and fight a lot when the cameras weren't rolling - it's fascinating stuff.

    The BFI have also included, in high definition, a few of Werner Herzog's shorts as well as the feature length Fata Morgana:

    The Unprecedented Defense Of Fortress Deutschkreutz (1966, 16 minutes):

    A remote German fort used during the Second World War has been sealed off, it's doors closed forever as it is no longer needed anymore. The mayor has admitted that he doesn't know what to do with it, and the building has been put up for sale. Before the war the building was an insane asylum, now it's simply a shell. A group of four young men take shelter in the fort and use the left over uniforms as clothes. Now having the run of the abandoned fort, they have some fun by playing games and goofing off. Form there they start to pretend they're soldiers, going through military exercises and marching around the compound. They soon start to imagine that they're under attack and so they barricade themselves in with sandbags.

    Last Words (1967, 13 minutes):

    Another strange short film, this one follows a nameless old man as he rants about his life to the camera somewhere on a remote island near Greece. He's been picked up by the police and brought back to the mainland where he plays his instruments in a local bar. Some of the people who live around the old man talk about him, and for some reason they all repeat everything they are asked twice - this could just be 'weird for the sake of weird' - if Herzog was going for something with this tactic, it went over this reviewer's head.

    At any rate, this is another quirky entry in a filmography riddled with quirks. We don't know anything about this man or his life other than what we learn in the brief running time but that doesn't make him any less interesting. The camera captures his weathered features and the sadness in his face very effectively, and while it's not possible to really get an understanding of his life in thirteen minutes, we definitely get a feeling for his frustration with the hand that life has dealt him.

    Precautions Against Fanatics (1969, 12 minutes):

    An early color short, this one begins with the images of a man riding at a horse race track. From there we learn of how he wants to protect the horses from fanatics. He and his cohorts explain the various security precautions that they've put into place and how they aim to do their utmost to protect the horses. They get into arguments with old men and generally cause problems for the trainers and the owners. The whole thing is a put on they weren't really trying to protect the horses from fanatics at all, just having a joke and eventually they conclude that the fanatics are not a problem, there are only harmless visitors at the race track that day.

    Fata Morgana (1970, 74 minutes):

    With Fata Morgana, Herzog perfects the technique he showed early on with Herakles, his first short from 1962, by the juxtaposition of moving pictures and images with music and voice over sans any serious or traditional narration. It's a very experimental work, and a high point in the man's career. To start things off, let the record show that this film has absolutely no plot. Instead, Herzog's camera shows us a series of images shot in and around the Sahara Desert. The music of Leonard Cohen plays throughout most of the film (three songs specifically - Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye, Suzanne, and So Long Marianne) and there are a few lines of spoken dialogue here and there to give the movie some context.

    The images here are what are important. With no story to get in the way we're able to soak in some of the most amazing scenes you're going to see in a truly interesting environment. Split up into three parts - Creation, Paradise and The Golden Age - Herzog toys with various myths and religious themes as he simply shows us what a lot of us would never both to stop and look at. Actual desert mirages are shot and we see the hallucinations through the lens for ourselves. We see bombed out cars, smoking wreckage, and some odd roadside performance artists. The images tend to contrast with the titles of the three chapters and interestingly enough, Herzog shows us not what mankind sees in nature, but how nature sees mankind.

    He cleverly sets up a shot in which a young boy stands with his pet dog. Though initially we see the dog as we normally would both in real life and in a film, the camera soon subverts the image and before we really realize it we're looking at the boy from the dogs point of view. Little tricks like this, subtle and smart camera work and compositions, lend an air of the supernatural to the natural. Herzog's work has often times concentrated on the natural and on man's eternal conflict with his environment, Fata Morgana is no different than many of his other films in that regard, but here it all comes together quite seamlessly. In this film, man is not the central focus of the film, he's simply a part of the bigger picture, part of the landscape or the environment himself.

    Fata Morgana includes an optional commentary track featuring Werner Herzog in conversation with Crispin Glover, again, ported over from the older Anchor Bay DVD release. Like most of Herzog's tracks, it's quite an interesting listen and there's a lot of discussion here about how certain shots were achieved and what it was like out shooting in the various locations used throughout the picture in addition to how the film explores its themes through its visuals.

    Rounding out the extras on the disc is a trailer for the feature presentation, a still gallery of behind the scenes and promotional images, animated menus and chapter selection. This release also comes with a full color booklet that includes an essay on the film by Laurie Johnston, a review for the film, full credits for the feature and for the additional shorts and full credits for the disc alongside a nice selection of archival photographs.

    The Final Word:

    The BFI Blu-ray release of Werner Herzog's Aguirre Wrath Of God is excellent. The audio and video quality is vastly improved over previous DVD releases and the extras are not only comprehensives but fascinating as well and the compliment the feature really nicely. The movie itself holds up remarkably well, a legitimate triumph of filmmaking and a flawless showcase for the talents of both the film's director and its leading man.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!





























































    • Paul L
      #1
      Paul L
      Scholar of Sleaze
      Paul L commented
      Editing a comment
      Absolutely bloody gorgeous! Nice review, Ian! I saw this in my local HMV today for £14-99 but didn't have the pennies for it. (I'm getting the NOSFERATU steelie for my birthday next week.) I may go back and get it at the end of the week.

    • Ian Jane
      #2
      Ian Jane
      Administrator
      Ian Jane commented
      Editing a comment
      Thanks Paul! The BFI hit a home run with this one - definnitely one of the best discs of the year so far.
    Posting comments is disabled.

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