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Aguirre, the Wrath of God


Werner Herzog enjoyed critical and commercial success with his first feature, Signs of Life (1968), and began a tradition of terrible behind-the-scenes antics with his second fictional work, Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) when one actor was run over by a vehicle and another caught on fire. But the modern legend of Herzog’s intense, unique brand of cinema probably began with Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Aguirre was the director’s first collaboration with his ‘best fiend’ and ‘worst frenemy,’ Klaus Kinski, and his first trip to the Amazon for extremely difficult location shooting. All throughout production, Herzog was just barely maintaining control. The natural elements in the rainforest were against him and he had to contend with the unpredictability of Kinski, who did everything in his power to be the direct center of attention (as seen in Herzog’s documentary ode to Kinski, My Best Fiend).

 Aguirre, The Wrath of God
Typical of many of Herzog’s ‘fictional’ dramas, Aguirre was based on historical incidents and accounts of 16th century Spanish missionary, Gaspar de Carvajal. De Carvajal had been chaplain on Quito governor Gonzalo Pizarro’s deadly expedition over the Andes Mountains and into the Amazon jungle. When the party ran out of supplies, Pizarro ordered his second-in-command, Francisco de Orellana, to lead another expedition down the Napo River. In Herzog’s version, Pizarro (played by Alejandro Repullés) is leading his conquistadors in a search for the fabled ‘City of Gold’ – El Dorado. As provisions run low and the soldiers began to starve, Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) and Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) are sent on a mission down river, with Ursúa's mistress, Doña Inéz (Helena Rojo), and Aguirre's teenage daughter, Florés (Cecilia Rivera), in tow. As the river descent is plagued with its own hardships, Aguirre is driven mad by his ambition.

Aguirre isn’t Herzog’s most polished film, but it is my personal favourite, due in part to its contradictory tones. It is a driving, burdensome project, wrought with nearly catastrophic backstage hardships, as well as a drifting, haunting experience that rarely feels pre-arranged or ‘processed.’ As the conquistadors’ journey turns bleaker, the veneer of typical plotting and character development blend into a haze of fascinating, feverishly dramatic, yet eerily anesthetizing imagery. Their desperate efforts to cling to Spanish Catholic traditions, like Christian burials and criminal tribunals, soon appear completely absurd against the backdrop of native insurgence, natural disaster, and Aguirre’s incessant conspiracy. Herzog allows these historically probable events – at one point, Don Pedro de Ursúa simply announces that the lands to the right and left of the river now belong to them – to simply exist. He doesn’t need to make them appear any more surreal by employing aggressive editing or camera techniques.

 Aguirre, The Wrath of God

Video


As mentioned in my capsule review of the standalone release of Fitzcarraldo, Shout Factory secured the release rights to sixteen of Herzog’s most popular films from Anchor Bay, whose anamorphic DVD releases had been out of print for quite some time. All sixteen films were released as part of an epic thirteen-disc collection last year and are now being slowly trickled, bit-by-bit into standalone editions. The first was Nosferatu the Vampyre, followed by Fitzcarraldo and now Aguirre.

Generally speaking, I’m not sure how this 1080p, 1:33:1 (Herzog’s preferred aspect ratio) transfer could be any better. With the exception of a few particularly grainy shots, it actually looks like a brand new movie. There aren’t any notable issues with print damage. When not shooting facial close-ups, Herzog and cinematographer Thomas Mauch shot most of the film with wide-angle lenses and relatively deep focus. This leads to a number of really busy shots that created shimmering problems and edge haloes for SD versions. Details and fine textures are rich without any notable compression effects. As I also mentioned in the Fitzcarraldo review, the basic colour timing of makes me assume that Shout isn’t reusing Anchor Bay’s transfers, which are noticeably warmer – however, they also aren’t recycling the transfer that appeared on BFI’s UK Blu-ray release. There are distinct differences in the gamma/contrast between the two (as seen on this caps-a-holic comparison page. Shout’s black purity and overall gamma levels are cleaner, but also sort of weak. The occasional nighttime sequence can be a bit hazy and low-light daytime shots have minor pooling/crush issues.

 Aguirre, The Wrath of God

Audio


Shout Factory’s new Blu-ray features the same three audio choices found on the already available German and UK releases – German 5.1, German 2.0 mono, and English 2.0 mono, all in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Though it appears that a lot of the German track needed to be dubbed it in post-production, it is still the preferable option, because it features Kinski’s actual voice. The 5.1 remix and original mono tracks each have their own advantages and disadvantages. Dialogue is louder in mono, but cleaner in 5.1, because it is designated from the ambient effects of the noisy rainforest. The remix is also generally warmer and elements are more dynamic, though the process of separating single-channel, location-captured noise does create some weird channel-to-channel shifts and overly quieted natural effects. The punchier sounds, such as gunshots, cannon fire, and rushing rapids, end up sporting the same issues with reverb as the dialogue. The seldom-employed musical score, written and performed by German progressive rock group Popol Vuh, gets the biggest upgrade on the 5.1 mix, especially during the opening titles.

 Aguirre, The Wrath of God

Extras


All of the extras here have been available on other releases and include:
  • English language commentary from Herzog moderated by critic Norman Hill – Taken from Anchor Bay’s DVD, this commentary is basically a Q&A session with Hill moving the discussion with a series of simple, open-ended questions. Though there is a lot of overlap between the commentaries, I’d say this one is more the ‘technical’ of the two with slightly more focus on production hardships.
  • German language commentary from Herzog, moderated by distributor Lauren Straub – Taken from the German Blu-ray, this track moves along a bit faster and leans a little more on filmmaking techniques and meaning.
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Still gallery


 Aguirre, The Wrath of God

Overall


At the risk of overselling Herzog’s achievements, it’s sometimes as if Aguirre transcends the trappings of the movie-making process and blurs the lines between Kinski’s increasingly theatrical performance style and the director’s objective, documentarian approach to the world his larger-than-life persona is set against. Shout Factory’s standalone Blu-ray release looks really nice – I’d wager to guess even nicer than previously available versions – sounds very good, and includes two feature-length commentary tracks with Herzog.

 Aguirre, The Wrath of God

 Aguirre, The Wrath of God

 Aguirre, The Wrath of God
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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