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on July 3, 2000
One of the many documentaries circulating around the world film festivals at the moment is `My Best Fiend', which deals with the often strained love-hate relationship between the German director Werner Herzog and his Teutonic protégé, Klaus Kinski. Both highly egocentric personalities, bordering on narcissism, the documentary highlights the creative frisson at work, as well as the unbridled madness.
`Aguirre: The Wrath of God' is the culmination of their talents and arguably their best work. Ostensibly about the early 16th Century Peruvian expedition for a lost city of gold by the Spanish explorer Pizarro, the actual subject matter is about power and what some people will do to achieve it.
Staggeringly hypnotic and lyrical, this film ranks in my top five films of all time for the simple reason that it is incredibly dreamlike, yet ironically, the most realistic evocation of a historical period that has ever been portrayed on film.
Opening with a sweeping pan over a winding Incan trail, a team of Spanish conquistadors, Indian allies and native American and African slaves, beasts of burden and heavy artillery march down a steep incline. This is 1972 and there is no CGI, no trickery, Herzog actually forced his actors to lug a cannon around the Andes (and much more besides). Almost immediately a viewer will notice the menacing power of nature and the isolation of the expedition party. This isolation is what Aguirre calculatingly plays upon.
After the impressive opening, Pizarro's search for the city of gold (the Cibola of Peru) almost immediately runs into trouble. Uncertain of which direction to strike out for next, he divides his party into two and hands the leadership of the other party to a nobleman and assigns Aguirre as his lieutenant. Aguirre has different ideas of what the goal of the expedition should be, namely that the quest for gold should be replaced with the conquering of a great slab of territory, as land brings power, not gold. He continually undermines the nobleman leader and slowly lets his hunger for power come to the fore. Eventually Aguirre tires of the yoke and mutinies, encouraging others to join him in his quest for power. All the while, the party is slowly travelling by raft down a broad river (an upper tributary of the mighty Amazon?) being slowly decimated by both nature and the local inhabitants. Oblivious to the dwindling party, the mad Aguirre wants to get to the end of the river and carve out his empire, regardless of the consequences. ...
Kinski's performance (as Aguirre) is absolutely first rate and the supporting cast are exceedingly talented, however, the power of the film lies behind the extremely adept way in which Herzog handles the visuals. It truly makes one feel like one is walking with the primitive, dirty, rapacious, immoral conquistadors. These visuals are heightened by the wonderful music of Popul Vuh. A `Krautrock' band, they nevertheless eschewed the harsh sparseness of Kraftwerk, Can, Neu, Harmonia and Cluster to come up with a far richer more melodic sound. Beautifully mournful organ music and soft pan flute music were used in all the right places to enhance the visuals' dreamlike qualities.
All in all, I can recommend this film wholeheartedly to any lover of cult movies, of history, or of European cinema. It is, however, a very deliberately paced movie and would not be enjoyable to those who are looking for mindless action or who can not appreciate that cinema gives what you take out of it. This film is an `experience' rather than mere `entertainment'.
A final note to any readers - this review is based on the cinema/video versions. The DVD has not been released yet and I have no idea of its picture quality or extras (doubtful). I was just so excited that it is finally coming out on DVD, that I had to write this and hopefully get one other person to see it :-)
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on April 23, 2001
An involving contemplation of the human condition, "Aguirre, Wrath of God," directed by Werner Herzog, is a pensive meditation on the nature of the species, an emotionally engrossing film that is visually stunning (it was filmed on location in the Amazon), insightful and imaginatively presented. The story begins in 1560, with Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles) and his army of conquistadors traversing the Andes in search of wealth, as in the wake of the conquest of the Incas some years before, the Indians began circulating stories of the legendary City of El Dorado, which purportedly held riches beyond measure. When they reach an impasse, however, Pizarro commands forty men to continue on down the river by raft, to seek out any Christian civilization that may be of help or able to lead them to their destination. He places Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) in charge, with Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as his second in command, giving them one week, after which time if they have not returned, Pizarro and the rest will go back the way they came. Among the forty chosen to go on, are Ursua's wife, Inez (Helena Rojo), and Aguirre's fifteen-year-old daughter, Flores (Cecilia Rivera). But when this leg of the expedition goes awry as well, Ursua issues orders that they are to return to Pizarro; Aguirre takes exception to this, however, and rallies the men against Ursua, telling them to consider Cortes, who disobeyed when ordered back, and then went on to conquer Mexico. What the men do not realize at the time, is that Aguirre is a delusional madman with an agenda of his own, that actually has little to do with the acquisition of wealth, but everything to do with what he perceives to be his destiny as the "Wrath of God."
Herzog has crafted an absolutely mesmerizing film that is innovative and transporting. He permeates the story with a hypnotic, ethereal atmosphere that draws you into this world, and allows you to experience the hardships of the river and the nearly insurmountable obstacles of the Peruvian Rain Forests and the mountains. He creates that sense of being in a dream, where nothing is real, all of which is enhanced by the deliberate pace Herzog sets, as well as the haunting score that intensifies Aguirre's descent into madness. There are a number of truly memorable scenes, the most brilliant of which frame the story: The opening takes you along with Pizarro and his men as they negotiate the treacherous mountain paths, plodding slowly through mud and mist against all odds. It's an extended scene that allows the viewer to assimilate the full import of what is transpiring, and with it, Herzog is letting you know what to expect from the rest of the film. It's a breathtaking beginning, rivaled only by the final scene, in which the camera endlessly circles Aguirre as he stands alone on a raft in the middle of the river, expounding his delusions of claiming lands and the conquests that lie ahead still, surrounded by scampering monkeys and an aura of doom.
Kinski, with his natural, haunted expression and the chilling depth of his eyes, is perfectly cast as Aguirre. He captures the very essence of a man whose soul is damned, yet remains adamant in his quest to fulfill what he deems to be his own destiny. Cloaked in armor, his long hair straggling out from beneath his helmet, he exhibits a singular countenance, infused with menace and an attitude of invincibility. It's a powerful performance that underscores the impact of the contrast between the strength of his misguided and paranoid character, and the folly of his actions. That he is unbalanced is obvious fairly early on in the film, and because of that, coupled with his determination, you are quickly able to discern the probable outcome of the story. And it's disturbing, watching and knowing the fate that awaits these people with whom you've become involved, while at the same time, you're somewhat numbed to it all by the wistful state of being into which you have been so subtly lulled by Herzog along the way.
The supporting cast includes Edward Roland (Okello), Dan Ades (Perucho), Del Negro (Brother Carvajal), Armando Polanah (Armando) and Peter Berling (Don Fernando). An honest consideration of instinctual behavior, "Aguirre, Wrath of God," is a thought provoking study of the innate predisposition of man to go forth and conquer, regardless of-- or perhaps owing to-- his present situation, whatever or wherever it may be. It's a rare film that will take you to a place wherein reality is seemingly an illusion reflected in madness, profoundly borne on the artistic wings of Werner Herzog.
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on June 22, 1999
Surely the greatest film to emerge from the New German Cinema movement, the visionary Werner Herzog follows a band of Spanish conquistadors as they journey down the Amazon river in search of the mythical lost City of Gold. Commanded by Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) who soon succumbs to megalomania and its disastrous consequences, the expedition is thrust into circumstances it can neither control nor escape, leading to inevitable doom...
"Aguirre, The Wrath of God" is intense. Herzog has created a film that feels unbearably realistic as he records his cast wandering around dazed and lost, sometimes looking directly at the camera in total despair. The soundtrack music, some haunting electronic soundscapes by Popol Vuh is kept to a minimum, and Herzog accentuates the tension by concentrating on the sinister quietness of the river and hazardous jungle. Kinski is sensational as the loathsome Aguirre, and as a metaphor for another notorious figure that embraced megalomania, the character takes on an even greater significance.
Shot by Herzog's regular cameraman, Thomas Mauch, the film is signposted with some extraordinary images - the opening where the conquistadors descend a mist shrouded mountain, a character who hallucinates to seeing a ship marooned upon a tall tree, and the final scene, where Aguirre is alone on his raft and over run with tiny monkeys is both astonishing and mocking...
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on September 30, 2009
This is just a note about specs for the DVD of this wonderful film. It has a 4:3 (1:1.33) aspect ratio because that's how Werner Herzog shot the film and released it. (See his official website [...] for details). This is not a pan-and-scan release but the original theatrical presentation. Don't be put off because the DVD is full-frame, there never was any other version.
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on May 13, 2001
The story is familiar to anyone who has seen Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or the countless stories inspired by Frank Norris' McTeague: a group of adventurers goes looking for treasure in a hostile wilderness. One by one, they succumb to power-mad fantasies and kill each other, until there is only one left. He is mad by the end - stark, raving mad. Maybe he has the gold, maybe he doesn't. But he's far from home in every sense. Even if he could get back to civilization, he has snapped, broken from the reality of his former life. He is shattered. Aguirre, The Wrath of God presents a variation of this story, but one rooted in history.
The Fred C. Dobbs character is the titular Aguirre, played to eerie perfection by Klaus Kinski. He is part of a 16th-century Spanish expedition to the Amazon River basin looking for El Dorado, the fabled city of gold. The first time I saw this film, I could guess where the story was inexorably leading. What I was not prepared for was the extraordinary power of its images, performances, and ideas.
Stanley Kubrick once said that if you do your job well as a director, then it almost doesn't matter how you shoot a scene. Where you plant the camera, in other words, becomes less important than what is going on in front of it. Werner Herzog proves that point with every dream he commits to celluloid.
One would think, for example, that a hand-held camera would seem jarring, out of place in the 16th-century. Historical dramas tend toward tripods, dolly and track, diffusion filters, and lush beauty lighting. But most of Aguirre, The Wrath of God is shot like a documentary - without affectation; searching for the shot and stumbling upon it. The camera - and therefore the viewer - becomes a participant in the story. The result is a series of arresting, yet organic images: a long line of European aristocrats and their native-born slaves traveling a narrow, misty trail in the side of a steep mountain; a raft full of doomed conquistadors helplessly drawn into an eddy near some rapids on the Amazon; a woman in a sumptuous gown drifting into the jungle in stately silence, never to be seen again; Aguirre alone on a raft full of corpses, expounding on his plans for conquest to an audience of a hundred chattering monkeys. These images, and more, burn themselves into the mind. That Werner Herzog achieves them with such apparent artlessness is astounding.
Aguirre, The Wrath of God is ultimately a brutally simple film. Some of its least-adorned scenes reach more deeply than the most technically dazzling set pieces by the likes of Hitchcock, Welles, or DePalma. Young film-makers would do well to take heed.
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on July 22, 2012
Imagine this: A 28-year-old steals a 35 mm camera from a film school, heads to the South American jungle, and, with a miniscule budget, convinces 450 actors and extras - many of whom do not speak his language - to not only endure jungle heat and insects and sleep in a communal barn but also to trek over a muddy mountain with alpacas and horses and with heavy equipment on their backs and to board small, hand-crafted rafts on a river that, if you fell in, you'd be sucked under and killed. And imagine that this 28-year-old, after making up the script as he goes along, shooting most of the scenes only once, and editing the film in only a month, ends up creating what Roger Ebert named one of the 10 best films, period.

The story of the making of this film is almost as insane as the film itself. On their way to the jungle, the cast and crew were at the last minute diverted from a plane that ended up crashing, killing 90+ people. (28 years later, Werner made a documentary about the sole survivor called Wings of Hope.) Once there, resources were extremely scarce. Werner sometimes had to sell his boots or his wristwatch just to get breakfast. The total budget was $370,000 (or about $1.9 million in today's dollars) and one-third of that went to the lead actor, Klaus Kinski. Kinski, by the way, was about as mad and uncontrollable on the set as he appears in the film. One night he became so infuriated at the noise created by the partying extras that he randomly fired three shots into the barn. He was lucky he didn't kill anyone. Later he hit someone so hard in the head with his sword that had the person not been wearing an iron helmet his skull would have been split.

When Werner was asked how he dealt with all this when he was only 28, he responded, "I had a clear perspective and I was fortified with enough philosophy to get through it."

That perspective/philosophy is not only what allows Werner to complete such ambitious films, it's also what makes his films worth watching. There is a reason he went through all the jungle-imposed trouble. Said Werner, "In this film, human beings are put to the real test. You can learn more about ourselves this way than from a film that takes place in a car, a restaurant, and on the telephone. The purpose of the jungle is to explore what is the bottom line of our existence, and how do we behave under particular strains and stresses, and then you gain much deeper insights into our very nature."

In this film (and in all of his films), the jungle is not just a scenic backdrop, it is a character itself. It causes the other characters to go insane and it, too, grows increasingly insane. But Werner doesn't consider the jungle exotic. "It's just another forest."

What's particularly hypnotizing about the movie is the images. Images like the woman in the royal gown walking straight into the jungle, or like the 400 monkeys scurrying around a raft full of corpses, or like the unendurable silence that everyone knows means death, or like the horse being shoved off the raft and then standing on the shoreline, perfectly still but slowly disappearing. The film alternates between spontaneous documentary-like shots and highly-stylized frozen still-lifes. Instead of showing close ups of the actors' faces, it shows characters from behind so that we have to project emotions into them. It uses a choir organ that sounds vaguely but not quite like the human voice. And the bird calls are carefully timed to maximize tension.

As much as I adore this movie, it doesn't sit well with me that this is Herzog's best-known film (outside of Grizzly Man). At times, it has the feel of a movie created by a 28-year-old. Especially in comparison to his later movies, there is more blood and action and dark humor and overt metaphors. Fitzcarraldo is, in plot, a very similar film, but since it was created 10 year later it is substantially more mature. Please don't let this be the only Herzog film you see. (Psst, check out The White Diamond and Encounters at the End of the World.)

---

Here are some other things to help you appreciate this film:

* Werner kept telling Kinski to "move like a crab." Kinski did this to great effect--genuinely frightening most of the cast.
* Since there was such a small budget, Werner did all the costume design himself, with "help" (quotes deserved) from Kinski.
* The corpse shown in the 50th minute is a real mummy. It is extremely fragile so bringing it to the set was a real challenge. They actually purchased an extra plane ticket for the mummy and sat it next to Werner's brother on the plane.
* Werner: "I've never storyboarded anything in my life. I think it's a disease of Hollywood."
* At one point, over an artistic disagreement of how his character should behave, Kinski threatened to leave the set. Werner threatened in return that if he turned around, there would be 8 bullets in his back. He was serious. Kinski was well-behaved "for the next 10 days."
* The same stolen camera that he used for this film he used in 8 other films. But he doesn't like to consider it "theft." "It was just a necessity--I had some sort of natural right for a camera, a tool to work with."
* Much of this information comes from the commentary available on the DVD. Highly recommended.
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on December 3, 2003
Someone stated earlier that you should avoid this dvd as it is full frame and not widescreen. "Aguirre" was shot by Herzog in 33:1 aspect ratio, and there is no widescreen version of the film.
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on June 9, 2005
When you rent this DVD, be aware that there is a second version of the film that you can watch, after you've seen it once. This second version lets you sit in the room as the director himself is being interviewed throughout the movie, as he watches it with you and comments about it.

From this interview we learn that most of the scenes were shot only once, that there was almost no money and very little time, that much of the action was determined nearly on the spur of the moment. A storm or flood damaged the set overnight? Use it as part of the story. The director comments that composing a storyline in advance is not his style, and that it would kill the spontaneity of movie making. Also, a video camera was stolen in order to make this movie. The director doesn't consider it theft. He considers it the appropriation of something needed, more or less like Jean Val Jean swiping a loaf of bread.

There are remarkable and excellent reviews of the film on this site. Don't worry about spoiling the plot. The plot really isn't the point. The experience is the point.

In short, it is a German language film but it is set in South America at the time of the conquistadores. They are searching for the city of gold, which they believe is near Macchu Picchu, where they begin. One unit of conquistadores sails down a tributary of the Amazon River, intending to claim all the land they see as their own. They are using Indian slaves. They are, as we know, rapacious bastards and cruel religious fanatics utterly and insanely convinced that they know the one true god, and that the Indian people are basically worthless, to be exploited.

This unit, on its raft, is taken over by a crazy s.o.b. named Aguirre, played by Klaus Kinski, who the director explains was actually a crazy s.o.b. in real life as well. Aguirre is an alternate Hitler, in another time and place. He is a megalomaniac intent on ruling a vast empire, a man unbothered by conscience, a man obsessed and insane, out of touch with reality.

Aguirre is a mellow Hitler most of the time, though his crab-like sidling walk whispers to you that he is nuts. He doesn't tend to shout, except in one memorable scene which I will describe.

There is a lady on board the raft, the wife of the appointed leader of the expedition, the wife of the man that Aguirre has mutineed against, the man who Aguirre shot and wounded. She scolds Aguirre, warns him that she knows that he intends to do further harm to her husband, that God will punish him for that. Aguirre doesn't reply to her. He backs away. A horse is in his way, on the raft. He takes his anger out on the horse, yelling at it to get out of his way. The horse immediately falls down, apparently as a result of being yelled at by Aguirre, though the director explains to us that the horse was tranquilized, causing it to fall at that moment.

The religious fanatics are ridiculed by the director, as well they should be. In one scene, an Indian is handed a Bible and told that it contains the word of God. The Indian, who obviously has never seen a book before, puts the Bible to his ear, doesn't hear the word of God, and says so. For that bit of blasphemy, he and his wife are killed.

The religious leader of the conquistador unit lights up any time that gold is mentioned. He gets a crazy gleam in his eye. It's pretty funny to watch.

Perhaps my favorite moment in the film comes near the end, as Aguirre follows around a band of monkeys on his raft, picks one up, speaks to it, and tosses it. You've got to see that.

You also have to see the scene where Kinski is fantasizing about the empire he will rule, an empire of purity, pure because it will be founded by him and his own daughter in an incestuous relationship, thereby keeping the bloodline pure. That is a wonderful comment by the director about Hitler's vision of racial purity and Aryan supremacy. To underscore the fact that Aguirre is nuts, as if his vision of an entire nation descending from himself and his daughter isn't enough, we have the small but relevant fact that his daughter, the future mother of his children, is already dead.

There is a lot of carnage and death in this movie, but it is handled so quietly. When people get shot, whether by arrows or guns, they make no noise and they seem to feel no pain. I've never seen anything like it. One fellow, a black slave, notices that an arrow has just pierced his leg, and just tells himself that it is all an illusion. Another, having just been run through by an arrow the length of a spear, simply comments that long arrows seem to be coming into fashion, and then he dies.

To put this film in perspective, let's explore what it would have been like had it been made in Hollywood. Hollywood would have given us a hero to root for, a victory to cheer for, and a romantic interest for the leading character. I'm so sick of it.

So many movies can be summed up with the exact same description. The hero faces overwhelming odds. He is almost defeated, but he eventually overcomes the enemy. He also gets the girl. The end. Whenever I see that plot redone I feel like saying "what a piece of garbage".

Aguirre is not garbage. It is an original work of art. Thank you for that.

Many moviegoers wouldn't enjoy this movie. It is too slow-paced to keep their attention. It isn't the cinematic equivalent of soda pop. But I enjoyed it, and since you are on this site, you probably would appreciate it too.
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on February 19, 2002
This can't be presented letter-boxed - if you check on Herzog's official website, it clearly tells you this was originally filmed in 1.33:1 ratio. So, ignore any 'oh! - it's pan-and-scan!' comments - because it's never actually been a widescreen film.
The film is so stunning that, perhaps, some viewers may have actually remembered it as 'widescreen.'
Herzog's a genius - end of story.
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on January 5, 2000
Aguirre is one of those rare films where I can find new meaning in each successive viewing. At first, I thought this film merely dramatized an ill-fated Spanish expedition. However, I found deeper ideas in Aguirre emerging as their expedition drifted further into the engulfing jungle. What's most enjoyable about this movie is exploring its symbology. This is the sort of film that will impress each viewer differently, so I won't try to make a definitive analysis. It is unmeasurable in rational terms. Think of that unforgettable scene near the end where the monkeys are swimming towards the raft--what does that mean? My brain cannot grasp the effect that scene had on me, but I do know how I felt at that moment. This film reaches down to grasp primal, human fears, yet, in those depths it also achieves a transcendence. A masterpiece of vision and cinematography.
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