Many of us have heard tales of the lost city of El Dorado, fabled city of gold, in one form or another. My own introduction must have been via Phillip Schofield’s broom cupboard in the 1980s and Bernard Deyries French/Japanese cartoon series The Mysterious Cities of Gold. A wonderful series, loosely based on historical events, which captured the imagination of many a child of the time.
Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, though, is an altogether different take on the legendary myth. A dangerous, visceral, warts and all, almost documentary style journey through steamy rainforest, misty mountains and raging river rapids! We follow every difficult step as a group of Spanish conquistadors navigate the jungle environment in search of the fabled city, while always in danger of attack by unseen native tribes, all the while, descending into a surreal nightmare from which there is likely no return.
The plot is simple and dialogue is sparse but when you have the manic Klaus Kinski in your lead role, as Lope de Aguirre, vagueness need not be a problem. Kinski is superb as the ‘bent’ (figuratively and literally) Spanish soldier intent on gold and glory. Sparking a mutiny, sowing seeds of unrest, killing those who disagree with him and generally causing merry hell (both on and off the set, apparently) it is hard to take your eyes off him whenever he’s onscreen. One feels this man’s story can only end one way. Badly!
Released in 1972, Aguirre, Wrath of God is truly a spectacular feat of film making. Made for a paltry sum and filmed around Machu Picchu, Peru and in the Amazon with a stolen 35mm camera, one must surely admire, even 40 years later, the bravura of Herzog (then 28 years of age) in achieving what he did. The opening image alone, an extreme long shot tracking the flea sized conquistador party of a hundred souls descending one of the huge mountain sides, is worthy of the asking price! The eerie score by Krautrock band Popol Vuh is also noteworthy, creating a fantastic atmosphere throughout. This was only Herzog’s third feature and his first with Kinski, with whom he would make another four films, and it is a fantastic entry in the Herzog canon.
Aguirre, Wrath of God was scanned at a 2K resolution from the original negative and remastered by Alpha-Omega Digital GmbH in Germany and, boy, does it look good!
Presented in the original aspect of 1.33:1, I doubt the film has ever looked so punchy on home video! Vivid green jungle-scapes, wild muddy torrents, beautifully coloured red and purple costumes and the blue of Kinski’s staring eyes all look fantastic in this 1080p presentation. Remember too, this is a movie shot 40+ years ago on a single, stolen 35mm camera, amidst incredible conditions and marvel at the clarity of the visuals on screen. Pleasingly, and correctly, for an entirely location shot feature this is a very natural and organic looking transfer with little or no significant damage to be seen. Over zealous digital manipulation is also, happily, non existant so all in all I think it’s fair to say, I love the look of this Blu-ray.
Three audio tracks are offered up on this new Blu-ray with both a German and English LPCM 1.0 mono track and also a German 5.1 DTS-HD track. All of the tracks sound great but bear in mind what we are hearing is the reality of the conditions in the location so we have actors dialogue fighting against rushing water and shouting at eachother amidst the chaos. I think, along with the soundtrack, it is a perfect accompaniment to the visuals. BFI, happily, have also provided subtitles for the German version.
BFI have provided some great quality extra material for this release, including another FOUR Herzog films! Yes, three of them are shorts but they are all remastered in HD and all give us a nice insight into the early filmic works of Herzog. The short films are ‘The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz’, ‘Last Words’ and ‘Precautions Against Fanatics’ while the last extra film, running around 75 minutes is ‘Fata Morgana’. This last named is a fascinating documentary which Mike Sutton reviewed on DVD here.
There is an audio commentary track with Herzog for Aguirre and it is absolutely brilliant. A fascinating listen to hear, first hand, about the chaotic making of the movie and Herzog joins Ridley Scott, Fincher and Del Toro amongst my favourite chat-trackers. One of the extra films, Fata Morgana, also has a commentary with Herzog. There is also the usual trailer and a stills gallery plus the, as always, great complementary booklet with a new essay and on-set photographs.
A beguilingly brilliant film and another top quality release from BFI, this stacked steelbook with enough excellent extra material to sate appetites for a good couple of weeks is a must own for Herzog fans.