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story and backstory (the monk’s diary) were a fab- rication on his part, a screenplay essentially free- associated in less than three days after he chanced to read a couple of paragraphs about Pizarro and Don Lope de Aguirre in a friend’s personal library. But there is no doubt that the film was meant to be, as Herzog, along with his cast and crew, were bumped at the last minute from their intended flight into the Andes, which subsequently crashed and killed 97 of its crew and passengers. Fur- thermore, his script was really no more than a detailed treatment, leaving dialogue to improvi- sation and some of the film’s most decisive plot twists and character sketches available to the serendipities of weather and casting. It’s a surprisingly Shakespearean film, with Kinski’s Don Lope lurching around like a mis- shapen, steel-helmeted Richard III, urging Don Pedro’s men into open rebellion with indirect whis- pers that lead to assassination and the diverting election of Don Fernando de Guzmán (Peter

Berling), a schlub, as the doomed faux figure- head “Emperor of El Dorado”—a scheme on Don Lope’s part intended to lull the crew into thinking that fortune might fall into any of their laps. As their journey takes them further down river on their rafts, which are soon lost when the river rises 15 feet overnight, their dreams intensify with the dangers surrounding them in cannibal country. The themes touched upon by the loose-woven story are likewise Shakespearean, but they are also contemporary to the film’s own time as well as today. Herzog uses the story to venture sly edito- rial about the arrogance of imperialism, the dan- gers of politics commingling with religion (as the resident monk notes, the Church will always side with whomever is strongest), the illusory nature of leadership and privilege (we see Emperor Don Fernando’s golden goblet being refreshed with water scooped up from the very Amazon into which he defecates), and alludes to the moral bankruptcy of any naked bid to power—in the case of Don Lope, his ultimately revealed fantasy of be- ing so liberated with the wealth awaiting him in El Dorado that he can marry his own daughter. It took Herzog’s breakthrough film five years to reach the United States, but this “journey into the heart of darkness” (to quote its poster) was evidently undertaken with this goal in mind. Though regarded as a seminal avatar of the New German Cinema, AGUIRRE was in fact shot in English, though without direct sound, making its English-dubbed version somewhat more authen- tic and ultimately more satisfying than its Ger- man version, which is also dubbed but doesn’t fit


the actors’ lip movements at all. Though the film’s star Klaus Kinski spoke both German and En- glish, he did not lend his vocal talents to either version, with the German version of his perfor- mance dubbed by Gerd Martienzen and the En- glish one dubbed by Richard Johnson. Both the BFI and Shout! Factory releases take care to in- clude both the English and German versions (the only visual point of variation is the opening nar- rative scroll) and both also include the 2004 En- glish-language audio commentary moderated by Norman Hill that was originally included in An- chor Bay Entertainment’s DVD box set HERZOG KINSKI: A FILM LEGACY. However, the Shout! Factory set also includes a second, superior Herzog commentary, culled from a previous Ger- man DVD release, which is naturally offered in German with English subtitles. The AGUIRRE disc in the BFI’s set is accompa-

Festung Deutschkreuz,” 1967; 15m 30s), “Last Words” (“Letzte worte,” 1968; 13m 15s), and “Pre- cautions Against Fanatics” (“Massnahmen gegen

nied by FATA MORGANA as well as three early Herzog shorts not included in the parallel release: “The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz” (“Die beispiellose Verteidigung der

Fanatiker,” 1969; 11m 5s). All three of these shorts have a documentary appearance yet dabble in droll

surrealism. The first attends a group of young hoo- ligans who break into an abandoned fortress and, discovering some old wartime uniforms and weap- onry hidden away, occupy themselves with war games—in the spirit of defending the fortress from imagined threats—and terrorizing one of its resi- dent mice. “Last Words,” filmed on the Greek isle of Crete, is a nonsensical and abstract diversion about the importance we place on last spoken words, in which Herzog has a series of locals say the same sentences repeatedly, until the words them- selves lose meaning and emphasis and forfeit even their finality when editing decides what is truly fi- nal. More appreciably funny is “Precautions Against Fanatics,” in which a series of supposed riders, groomers and attendants (one is played by the fa- miliar actor Mario Adorf) speak to the camera of the need to have people present at racetracks to protect champion horses from so-called fanatics, with each interview humorously interrupted by a one- armed man, who evidently is, or presumes himself to be, in charge, who orders them all off the pre- mises. The last two shorts, in particular, seem to share a fascination with storytelling, truth and au- thority that parallels that of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s THE MAN WHO LIES (L’homme qui ment, 1968), made around the same time.

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