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A few decades after the destruction of the Inca empire, a Spanish expedition leaves the mountains of Peru and goes down the Amazon river in search of gold and wealth. Soon, they come across great difficulties and Don Aguirres, a ruthless man who cares only about riches, becomes their leader. But will his quest lead them to "the golden city", or to certain destruction? Written by
Chris Makrozahopoulos <email@example.com>
AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD (Werner Herzog - West Germany 1972).
Herzog's daring and unconventional approach in film-making is something very few filmmakers can match. Due to the incredible hardships while filming on location in the Amazonian jungle, the myth surrounding AGUIRRE has almost outgrown the virtues of the film itself and over the years it has become an almost integral part when (re)viewing this film, even more so since Herzog's documentary MY BEST FIEND (1999) was released about his relationship with "best enemy" and star in many of his films, Klaus Kinski.
A mesmerizing exploration of human obsession based on the diaries of Gaspar de Varvajal, a monk who accompanied Gonzalez Pizarro (half-brother of the brutal conqueror of the Incas) and died during the expedition, the film chronicles Pizarro's 1560 Peruvian expedition in search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado. When the expedition is faltering by the difficult terrain, Pizarro decides to send a small party ahead to determine if exploration should continue. Though Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) is put in charge, he is soon challenged by the ambitious fanatical Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), who against all odds wants the journey to continue, with catastrophic consequences.
One of the key elements in Herzog's work is the use of landscape and the natural surroundings. The Amazonian jungle is a key third dimension in the film and really is a green hell, threatening and unforgiven. There's no romanticism in Herzog's view of nature. The continuing sounds of the running water and the birds are just as important for the story and the despair of Aguirre's men as the ambient electronic soundtrack by the German ensemble Popol Vuh, the ultimate modern and very German pioneers in electronic music, mixing choral chants with electronic samples and organ music. To me it is simply astonishing Herzog decided to use their in a film about 16th century Spanish explorers shot on location in the Amazon and somehow it works wonderfully, a perfect blend of image and sound. Hard to identify a very important element of the "natural soundtrack": what's the name of the bird that produces this whistling shriek, that is heard almost continuously in the background and is one of the most recognizable sounds of Neo-tropical rain forests? A Quetzal?
Klaus Kinski's performance is a perfect match for Aguirre's descent into madness, eerily resemblant to Kinski's own Mad Kraut persona and well-published rampant behavior on the set and his misconduct in general actually. Watching the film for the first time with audio commentary by Herzog and he revealed many things I never heard before. One of the strangest anecdotes is not really about the film itself but is, well..truly one of the most bizarre things I ever heard.
Before the shooting started, Herzog and his crew were boarding for the plane that would bring them from Lima to Cuzco when the airplane had some technical problems. Since the airline company in question already had two or three serious accidents not long before, they decided to wait and take the next plane. Repaired or not, the plane left off anyway and crashed in the Amazonian jungle with the only survivor a young German woman, Juliane Koepcke. After weeks she finally reached a remote Indian village, malnourished, an almost fatal larval infection, close to death. Later Herzog would make a documentary about this, JULIANES STURZ IN DEN DSCHUNGEL (English title: Wings of Hope) (2000). Besides the already astonishing, many times near-fatal accidents and Kinski's impossible madman behavior, this film seemed doomed from the start, like an old curse from the Incas.
For those less familiar with Herzog's work, FITZCARRALDO (1982), also by Herzog and shot under equally horrendous conditions in the Peruvian jungle, would make a good companion piece. For Herzog's relationship with Kinski there is the interesting documentary MEIN LIEBSTER FEIND (My best fiend) (1999).
Camera Obscura --- 10/10
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