Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) | Werner Herzog’s mad masterpiece is a savage, hallucinatory beauty to behold

Aguirre, Wrath of God

Having failed in its quest for El Dorado, the fabled City of Gold, the 1560 expedition of Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro comes to a halt in the impenetrable jungles of Peru, where Pizarro then elects three nobles to continue with the search. Travelling down river on a raft, the explorers face treacherous waters, near starvation and hostile indigenous communities. In his own thirst for glory, nobleman soldier Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) commandeers the raft and begins slaughtering anyone who dares oppose him…

Aguirre, Wrath of God

Werner Herzog’s visionary voyage into the heart of 16th-century colonial darkness, Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), is without doubt one of the director’s most accomplished works: a visceral, ambitious exploration of megalomania and savage beauty.

Shot under arduous conditions in the high Andes near Machu Picchu, Herzog’s mad masterpiece is a film rich in wonders. There’s the exciting, cautionary tale: ruthless, pious invaders come a cropper while plundering the riches of Peru and enslaving its indigenous dwellers; the epic grandeur of the alien landscape, that’s both beautiful and dangerous (and looks fantastic in HD); and the legendary volatile Klaus Kinski giving a career-best performance.

Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

Taking his cue from the legend that the Incas invented El Dorado in order to lure the Spanish to the deadly Amazon swamplands and drawing on the real-life journals of Dominican missionary Gaspar de Carvajal, Herzog uses the historical adventure to vent against colonialism, imperialist politics, slavery and religion. But he does so with a sharp eye, creating some truly haunting images (the raft swarming with monkeys is cinema sublime), and a keen ear (courtesy of Popol Vuh‘s unearthly music). If there is one criticism, its hearing the actors speaking German/English rather than Spanish, as befits their characters. While disconcerting, it does however put emphasis on their ‘fish out of water’ relationship with the indifferent landscape. With no way out of this jungle, its best to just sit back and soak in Herzog’s haunting vision…

Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

One of the reasons why Werner Herzog remains an important figure in world cinema is that, throughout his career, he has always remained true to his own ideas, interests and obsessions. His ‘truth’ is his center and rather than making a career in film, it’s life’s mysteries that have drawn him to each project, usually in some inhospitable part of the planet – from the jungles of the Amazon to the caves of southern France. Blessed with an unusually observant eye, a sensitive ear and the ability to conjure up a great story, Herzog’s films invite us on voyages in search of the ‘spirit’ of life.

Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

The BFI Limited Edition Steelbook features a restored 1080p presentation of 93-minute film in its original aspect ratio 1.33:1 with original PCM 1.0 mono audio (German and English) and alternative 5.1 surround audio (German) in German, plus optional English subtitles. It also includes four early Herzog shorts (see list below), trailer and stills gallery, two audio commentaries with Werner Herzog, and a collector’s booklet.

The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz (1967, 16 mins). This satirical drama concerns four young men hiding from an imagined enemy, and became a dry-run for Herzog’s first feature, Signs of Life (1968)
Last Words (1968, 13 mins). This short, about the last man to leave a former leper colony, is an absurdist look at human communication.
Precautions Against Fanatics (1969, 11 mins). In this faux documentary (which has a Pythonesque tone about it) a group of animal lovers go to the defence of the horses at the Munich racecourse who are under threat from mysterious ‘fanatics’.
Fata Morgana (1971, 77 mins). This is one of Herzog’s first cinematic masterpieces, an imaginative variation on traditional creation myths. Shot in the debris-strewn Sahara and set to music by The Third Ear Band and Blind Faith, a heroic voice-over by Lotte Eisner (taken from the Quiché book Popol Vuh) is counter-pointed by images of poverty, pollution, decay and bizarre humanity.

The BFI’s Werner Herzog Collection box set, which spans 20 years of the director’s career, from 1967-1987, is released on 21 July on Blu-ray (8 discs) and DVD (7 discs).


About Peter Fuller

Peter Fuller is an award-winning print, radio and television journalist and producer, with over 30 years experience covering film and television, with a special interest in world cinema and popular culture. He is a leading expert on the life and career of Vincent Price and actively promotes the actor's legacy through publications, websites and special events.

Posted on June 3, 2014, in Classic World Cinema, Must See, Must-See, World Cinema and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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