On this river, God never finished his creation.
As a young man, Werner Herzog shared a ramshackle boarding house with an intense young actor named Klaus Kinski. Herzog stood by, with astonishment and awe, as Kinski flew into tantrum after tantrum, railing at everyone and demolishing everything within sight. Years later, when he ventured into the Amazon jungle, armed with a stolen camera and accompanied by a ragtag crew of filmmakers to create a film called Aguirre, he knew what he was getting into when he invited Kinski to join him. But he also knew it was really the only option.
Facts of the Case
It is 1561. In the wake of Cortez's conquest of Mexico, battalions of European treasure-seekers have invaded South America, hoping to achieve wealth, fame and immortality through a regime of genocide and plunder. Gonzalo Pizarro, a Conquistador who helped exterminate the Incan Empire, has led a massive, overburdened expedition into the Peruvian rainforest in search of El Dorado, the legendary city of gold.
Nearly sinking into the boglike jungle, Pizarro's company reaches a standstill. He delegates a party of forty soldiers to set out downriver, hunting for signs of gold. If they do not return within a week, he says, the company will presume they are dead, and trudge back to civilization. The scouting party is led by a soldier named Ursua, but almost immediately his authority is threatened by Don Lopa de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), an intense, misshapen man whose avarice and audacity make the other Conquistadors look like a bunch of martyrs.
When Indians within the jungle threaten the party, Aguirre seizes the opportunity to stage a mutiny. He establishes an oafish aristocrat as the Emperor of El Dorado, and commands the party through this figurehead. With an unstable power structure and an unstable raft, they move down the river; and as their supplies dwindle, their peril grows, and their minds begin to collapse under the jungle's feverish spell, Aguirre grows more and more manic in his apocalyptic visions of grandeur.
Herzog is an uncompromising filmmaker whose works have, as their lynchpins, visions of surreal, breathtaking intensity. He is an auteur who believes that great films should show us things we have never seen before. He is also doggedly utilitarian, in the sense that he knows the best, most powerful way to present those things is to accomplish them. Therefore, to create the story of the Conquistadors waging war against the jungle, he simply took his crew there…and waged war against the jungle.
Most directors would flee in terror when confronted with everything Herzog was up against. Certainly, no Hollywood studio would ever fund so haphazard a project. But Herzog's half-mad ambition is what makes Aguirre so magnificent a film, because so much of it is translated directly onto the screen. The only other film I can think of which shares its harrowing sense of truth is Apocalypse Now, another epic river journey into the heart of darkness. Apart from that, and some of Herzog's other films, nothing ever put to celluloid comes close to Aguirre's sense of intense, authentic struggle.
To make Aguirre, Herzog had to tame two raging forces of nature at once. On the one hand, he had the jungle, with its heat, humidity, disease, and wildlife; on the other, he had Kinski, who threw tantrums, made unreasonable demands, and recklessly endangered his cast and crewmates on more than one occasion. At one point, when Kinski threatened to leave the shoot, Herzog allegedly threatened him with death, rather than see his vision come apart. Once again, however, all these trials somehow manage to make it onto the screen, with Kinski's building mania matching Herzog's urgent yet poetic camerawork.
There are many spectacular components to this movie, and the Anchor Bay DVD does justice to most of them. The colours and details are rich and bright; you'd never know the film was almost thirty years old. I noticed one or two small instances of shimmering in the trees, but considering how much of the film has foliage and/or water in the background, it's a very impressive transfer. Likewise, Herzog's soundscape, including Florian Fricke's hallucinatory score, is admirably delivered, with the German soundtrack in Dolby 5.1 Surround (the dubbed English version is in mono).
The extras consist of a lacklustre trailer, talent files for Herzog and Kinski, and a director's commentary which beautifully complements the film. Aguirre is one of those movies that demands an explanation, and it's wonderful to hear Herzog off-handedly confirm for you that, yes, all those things you see happened pretty much as you see them. They dropped a cannon off a cliff to blow it up. They scaled the mountain with a complement of horses, pigs, and sedan chairs. They built a wooden ship and stuck it in the branches of a towering tree.
Herzog also discusses his conflicts with Kinski in the commentary. A lot of this material was also covered in his recent documentary, My Best Fiend—but if you're new to the weird world of Herzog, I'd suggest starting here, with Aguirre and the commentary. It's more fitting, somehow, to hear about Kinski's outrages when you have the finished beauty of the film to hold up against it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
[Editor's Note: It's come to my attention that Scott's comments below are inaccurate. Reader Tim Sniffin informed me that the film was indeed released with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I confirmed this information at Werner Herzog's official website, which is the only director's site I've seen that lists the technical details for their films. After receiving still another email from a reader who claimed to have seen it in widescreen theatrically, I wrote to Werner Herzog Film, who said in no uncertain terms that it was shot and released with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. There you have it people—the DVD does have the original aspect ratio. I've retained Scott's comments, but be aware that, even though they are well conceived arguments, they are factually incorrect.]
There's only one aspect of the DVD that doesn't satisfy, and while it's not quite enough to ruin the disc for me, it certainly threw me for a loop. Full-frame?! What were they thinking? I can't believe that Aguirre wasn't shot in widescreen. Ten years later, Herzog would return to the jungle to shoot Fitzcarraldo—with the same camera, no less—in 1.75:1. When Anchor Bay released that film, they sensibly presented it in all its widescreen glory. They would do the same for Cobra Verde, Nosferatu, and Woyzeck. So why would Aguirre get full-frame?
What's worse, I detected the tell-tale signs of pan and scanning. In one scene, the camera is meant to linger on Aguirre and an Indian flute player. Not only is Kinski's face cut in half by the framing (something neither Herzog nor Kinski would have condoned), but near the end of the scene, you can see the jerky pan-and-scan movement trying to keep both actors in the shot.
With anything else, from Anaconda to Jungle 2 Jungle, I would just shake my head and go on to the next rant. But for a film as resplendently visual as Aguirre—a film where the relationship between the humans in the foreground and the jungle on all sides is so vital to its theme—I just don't get it.
Once in a while, I will muse about the cost of filmmaking—not the dollars and cents cost (which is scary enough), but rather the human cost, the cost on our environment, our bodies and our souls. Was it really worth demolishing a hundred acres of pristine, ecologically unique Southeast Asian seacoast to make a popcorn flick like The Beach? Should Vic Morrow and the two kids have died while filming Twilight Zone: The Movie?
Generally, my sad response to these sorts of questions is no. But when I think about the anguish that went in to Aguirre, the Wrath of God…and then contrast it with the solemn, somehow modest magnificence of the film itself…well, it makes me feel as though no sacrifice is too great. This is what filmmaking should be about.
Herzog, Kinski et. al. are cleared of all charges; but Anchor Bay is ordered to undergo a drug test, in an attempt to ascertain exactly what they were on when they decided to release Aguirre in full-frame.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Werner Herzog
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