Through June and July, the BFI Southbank are running a Werner Herzog retrospective, and next month his 1974 film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, will be getting a UK release. The first of the Bavarian director’s classic films to be receiving a nationwide re-release, however, is 1972’s Aguirre, Wrath of God. Anyone who’s seen the film before will already be well aware of its majesty and how great it would look on the big screen. But if you haven’t seen the film before then you’re in for a treat.
Shot on location in the Amazonian jungle, Herzog’s ambitious film marked his first collaboration with the notoriously volatile Klaus Kinski. The story of the pair’s relationship on-set has become infamous, and perhaps as well-known as the movie itself – Herzog threatened to shoot Kinski in the head and kill then kill himself if the actor walked off set – but the performance he managed to draw from his crazed star is perfectly complements the film’s fever dream aesthetic.
Very loosely based on historical fact, Kinski’s Aguirre is among a party of Spanish conquistadors searching for the mythical city of El Dorado in 1560. But the group are threatened by the hostile terrain, from within the group when Aguirre leads a rebellion, and from a cannibalistic tribe residing within the jungle. It’s a doomed journey that can only lead them to their death and destruction, pausing only to let madness set in along the way.
From the opening scene in which hundreds of extras trek down a treacherous mountain path near Macha Pichu, to the fantastic final circling shot of the raft as it becomes overrun by swarms of monkeys, the film’s a visual masterpiece. Filming deep in the jungle lends the film a visceral quality that couldn’t be recreated artificially, and it’s no surprise that Herzog’s method went on to inspire Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Herzog originally recorded the dialogue in English, and it’s still a little jarring hearing the Spanish characters speaking dubbed German, but in a way it contributes to sense that everything in Herzog’s film is always just a little bit off. The costumes are a little too gaudy. Kinski’s hair seems unnaturally blond, his eyes a disconcerting piercing blue. It’s all appropriately slightly off-kilter, yet the longer it continues the more you get sucked into the world despite the sense of uneasiness. Herzog’s vision of man disregarding nature and bringing about his inevitable demise is an intoxicating one, and one that demands to be revisited through this wonderfully restored print.