“I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. Together, we shall rule this entire continent. We shall endure. I am the Wrath of God! Who else is with me?”
Following up from my review of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre comes the second BFI limited edition steelbook release of the week; Herzog’s monumental tour de force of a film, Aguirre Wrath of God. Leading on from his craze fuelled Even Dwarves Started Small (1970) and the surreal and trippy Fate Morgana (1972)- Fate Morgana accompanies this fantastic release- Herzog gained worldwide acclaim with this feature. The film proved to be a hit on the International art-house circuit despite initial criticism in Germany. It also bore a huge influence on Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Aguirre Wrath of God follows an ill-fated scout team of 16th century Spanish conquistadors who are sent ahead of the main party in a bid to find the new world of El Dorado. The film, pitched as a New Wave Adventure film, can be considered a raw and unflinching study into the reality of exploration. Herzog makes no bones about things in his telling of a story partly based on a real historical figure-although the bulk of the tale is the product of Herzog’s wild imagination. The adventure genre is usually full of rip-roaring tales of crusading and glamour. The director in this case turning this ideal on its head to make something of an antithesis of an adventure film; instead smothering his narrative in plausibility and creating something of an ode to the reality and hardship of chartering unexplored paths.
Herzog casts Klaus Kinski-in the first of five roles he would play for him- as the power hungry conquistador Aguirre. Kinski puts in a fabulously, restrained, skilled and theatrical performance, portraying a megalomaniac intent on securing a position of wealth and power regardless of the costs. His subtle undercurrent of complete madness bubbles beneath the surface throughout the feature. The paranoia and delusion at play here becomes engrossing to watch as the story unfolds; Aguirre quietly manipulating the team from the sidelines while gaining a position of power through threat, gentle coercion and careful control. The party initially is headed up by Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra), with Kinski’s Aguirre as his right hand man. When things start to get ropey, quite early on, Aguirre ensures a mutiny erupts- placing himself one step closer to his ultimate goal. He cleverly votes in the incompetent Don Fernando de Guzmán, knowing there will be someone to take the flack when things do not go as planned. It seems that everyone is just a pawn in Aguirre’s game including his own daughter Florés (Cecilia Rivera) and Pedro’s female companion Doña Inéz (Helena Rojo). While Kinski remains the core focus of the piece the supporting players all bounce off his incredible performance; conveying a convincing sense of fear toward his oppressive character, alongside their individual spiraling delusions, suspicions and desperation.
Aguirre is a story of desperation and carries a bleak and unforgiving message. Herzog adopts an astounding approach twinning Thomas Mauch’s intimate faux documentary style camerawork -the director coaxing naturalistic performances from his players across the board- with wide sweeping shots of the jaw dropping locations of the Peruvian jungle. The dialogue is sparse and the plot is carried along by a voice-over narrative provided by Brother Gaspar de Carvaja (Del Negro).
The verisimilitude contained in the story owes a huge debt to the conditions the cast and crew had to endure during filming; trekking across the jungle in an unforgiving heat, drifting around on a rickety raft, and climbing mountains. The sheer physical exhaustion these performers must have been facing translates very well to the characters they play, and behind the scenes stories are rife with tales of tension between Herzog and his lead Kinski. The pacing is slow, understated, with many scenes of the party simply floating down the river on their makeshift raft; as such Herzog captures the essence of true desolation as they try and fail to reach their promised land of riches and fame time and time again. Under these terms Aguirre carries very little actual action, hardly any bloodshed- aside from a graphic beheading and some spear victims- and yet the story quietly seeps under the skin, mesmerising, and hypnotic. All this is helped along by the unforgettable rhythmic Popol Vuh soundscape; providing an anodyne backdrop to proceedings, setting up the tone perfectly and ensuring the viewer is gripped as events unfold.
This BFI Limited Edition Steelbook comes with a gorgeous high definition restoration on blu-ray (1080p) in both English and German versions. The print is pristine and Herzog’s bold colour scheme and beautiful camerawork shine in this newly restored release; using elements taken from the original 35mm print, it comes presented in its original 1.33.1 aspect ratio from a 2k scan. In terms of quality this is a marvel, the BFI have done an outstanding job. The print shows a true depth, grain, and feel, which remains faithful to the original print. There seems to be no obvious evidence of DNS or over sharpening, yet the print is startlingly clear and heavily detailed. The sound is delivered in the original mono audio (with option 5.1 surround sound for the German version) and showcases the haunting Popol Vuh score fantastically.
The extras contained here are the real icing on the cake, containing no less than three upgraded Herzog short films; The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz (1967, 16 mins): a symbolic drama about four young men hiding from an imagined enemy ,Last Words (1968, 13 mins): a short film about the last man to leave a former leper colony, Precautions Against Fanatics (1969, 11 mins): a short satire about horse-racing enthusiasts. Adding to this there is also an additional full length feature; 1971 Fata Morgana (1971) a psychedelic and visually striking film which explores Mayan myth and mirages. Fata Morgana comes in a fantastically upgraded print, restored again from 35mm negatives. Both the main feature Aguirre Wrath of God and Fata Morgana come with feature length commentaries from Werner Herzog. This release is also accompanied by the original trailer and still gallery as well as an illustrated collector’s booklet with original writing on the film from Laurie Johnson.
Aguirre Wrath of God is a combination of beauty and the beast- the beauty of the breathtaking locations, the beast of humanity- or lack of- and its capability for greed and ruthlessness. Understated and truly mesmerising this is one film all fans of the unique need to have in their collection. This BFI release offers up a fantastically restored print; it is jaw dropping and comes bundled with a delicious host of extras. Snap it up while you can.
Check out the Official BFI page for details here.