Director: Werner Herzog
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Ruy Guerra, Helena Rojo, Del Negro
Producer: Werner Herzog, Hans Prescher
Country: West Germany
Running Time: 93 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I've been churning through first time watches of classic movies recently. My own personal 2014 Blind Spot List (which was largely made up of titles not watched from my 2013 list) was pretty much obliterated in my 'bachelor fortnight' a couple of weeks ago (only 1 film remains) and after allowing me to finally begin my love affair with Seven Samurai last month, the BFI are treating me to another unseen classic in the shape of the UK Blu-Ray release of Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God.
Herzog is a puzzling character who has always confounded expectations, covering all sorts of genres, largely to great success, whilst retaining his own unusual stamp on things. He's worked exceptionally hard for the last 50 years. Looking through the IMDB, there are very few years where he hasn't released something and he's still making well respected films now at 71 years old. I must admit, I've barely scratched the surface of his filmography, having only seen four of his films before watching the two titles here (Fata Morgana is also included in the set – see below for details). Nonetheless, I've always had an admiration for the director in his refusal to be pigeonholed or rest on his laurels and that small collection of films I've seen are all of the highest standard. So it was with great pleasure that I sat down to watch the film which first brought Herzog to the attention of cinema-goers outside his own country.
Aguirre, Wrath of God is set in the jungles of Peru in the 16th Century. The Spanish, who have recently conquered the Inca empire, have been told the legend of El Dorado, the lost city of gold, so an expedition has been sent out to find it. From this group, a small band of soldiers, noblemen/women and their slaves are sent down the endless Amazon river as the main party are unable to continue on foot. Along the way, Don Aguirre, a ruthless man, sees this as an opportunity to claim the wealth for himself and takes control of the motley crew to begin a new civilisation. However, as they get further down the river and into the jungle, their surroundings and greed envelop them, leading to their inevitable destruction.
Taking the Heart of Darkness theme of questioning what constitutes a 'civilised' person and mixing in healthy doses of insight into the corruption of power and greed, this is a dark tale with little hope to cling onto. It is, however, still a thrilling watch for a number of reasons. On the surface there is violence as well as a constant tension due to the fact that enemies are within and surrounding them at all times. The chief aspect which consistently amazed me though was just how downright ballsy its production was.
Herzog didn't have the money to create a jungle and river on a soundstage and he didn't want to fake the journey using some local overgrown woodland. Instead he actually took a small crew and a fairly hefty cast (particularly in the staggering opening shot) into the jungles of Peru and filmed them making the trip down river pretty much for real. The making of the film is rife with crazy stories (you have to listen to listen to the director's commentary) and the cast and crew had to adapt to various problems (the river really did rise dramatically overnight, taking the rafts with it). They also made the most of their surroundings, coming up with new scenes when fortune favoured them with something interesting to shoot.
The whole thing is a staggering achievement when you consider what went into it and how successfully it still works. Also key to this is the work of Klaus Kinski. He so easily could have been an over the top, textbook villainous character, yelling instructions and threats (and if Herzog's comments are correct, Kinski did want to go for this at times), but instead he strikes a perfect balance of deep-seated unpleasantness mixed with a cruelly manipulative streak. This is all shown through his facial expressions and off-kilter physicality rather than relying too much on delivery of dialogue. He even displays a little warmth in scenes with his daughter although they share a creepily suspect relationship.
The film looks great too. It has a peculiar style, common to much of Herzog's work, using a naturally lit almost documentary-like look, but making sure the framing and mis-en-scene still come together to create some beautiful and often powerful imagery. Seemingly simple moments like the abandonment of a horse are given a haunting quality through the bizarrely calm and still nature of of the animal, who stares at the characters and the audience whilst the raft and camera drift away.
All that said, it isn't an instantly gratifying experience though. Although the opening shot is breathtaking, it took me about ten or fifteen minutes to 'adjust' to the film. The naturalistic style takes a little getting used to when paired with some obvious ADR (the river was too loud for them to record dialogue live) so it feels a little rough and dated at first (which is largely why I marked it down a bit). Once you let the film in, it fully takes hold though and doesn't let go until the surreally haunting final sequence has drawn to a close.
Aguirre, Wrath of God is out on 19th May in the UK in a special steelbook Blu-Ray edition, released by the BFI. The picture quality is largely excellent, with colours coming through nicely and the image looking clean whilst retaining the texture of the original format. Towards the last half an hour the digital technology struggles to handle the grain though so you get a few minor digital noise issues (I'm not sure what the technical word is). This isn't particularly noticeable though – I spotted the same problem on the Star Wars Blu-Ray to a higher degree but no one else seemed to complain about it.
You get a few audio options – German 5.1, original German mono or English mono. I started off listening to the German 5.1 mix, but found it distractingly unnatural so switched to the German mono track after a little while. This was clean and strong.
You get a tonne of special features with the release. The most notable of these is the inclusion of a whole second feature film, Fata Morgana. This has previously been available as a standalone release and as part of one of Anchor Bay's Herzog Collections, so it's strange to see it here listed as a bonus feature rather than calling the release a 2-film set.
I won't write a full review of this second film, partly because I'm busy/lazy but also because it's a tough film to rate. Made the year before Aguirre, Fata Morgana is made up of random footage Herzog and his cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein shot in the Sahara desert. Split into three sections (Creation, Paradise and The Golden Age), it has been given a loose ironic structure in the edit suite whereby the film moves from the desolation of the desert (Creation) to impoverished settlements and industrial areas (Paradise) to bizarre acts of tourists and the middle classes (the Golden Age). This is all accompanied by an excellent but wildly varied soundtrack which moves from classical to Leonard Cohen to strange dance tunes played by an old lady at a piano and a younger drummer who sings with a muffled voice.
So, it's the sort of film you'll either get strangely drawn to or you'll scratch your head in disbelief as you watch it. Actually you'll probably do a bit of both as I did. So I can't say I loved the film, but it's impressive as a bonus feature.
What's more impressive is that both Aguirre and Fata Morgana get their own director's commentaries too. I believe these are the same as on previous Anchor Bay releases, but I haven't heard them so I'm not complaining. I didn't listen to the Fata Morgana track, but the commentary on Aguirre was great. Accompanied by Norman Hill, Herzog tells of the difficulties of the shoot and how they had to often go with the flow (almost literally when it came to the river causing them problems). Best is when he describes how he 'borrowed' the camera from a German university to shoot the film.
And that's not the end of the special features. You also get another three short films, The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz, Last Words and Precautions Against Fanatics. I must admit I've only seen one of these, The Unprecedented Defence, but it was pretty good. It had a kind of French New Wave quality mixed in with Herzog's usual nuttiness and strong grasp for visuals.
Finally, if all that wasn't enough, you get one of the BFI's booklets to accompany the film. This is stacked with interesting thoughts on the film as always. So all in all, it's a fantastic package and fans of Herzog will be rejoicing to see it hit stores.