First the steep mountain and clouds, then a red line of movement, and closer still, a cannon and a priest, a statue of the Virgin Mary, two Spanish women awkwardly carried in covered litters, the chained and enslaved Inca men being shoved and brutalized by conquistadors dressed in padded leather and beaten-iron clothing—all making their way down the Peruvian Andes. The conquistadors are looking for El Dorado with cannon and the Bible, this perfect couple in the lead. And playing the sixteenth-century conquistador Lope de Aguirre is Klaus Kinski. His wreckage of a face is skeptical, plotting, and sly, his body moves like a skeleton, rickety and poised, the coordinated uncoordination of true violence; he is elegant. One cannon falls down the mountain, one is fired randomly at everything and anything, one raft spins and spins in a vortex on the Marañón River. All is told with Kinski’s body. You spend the whole movie watching its stillness and its locomotion. Aguirre is clattering and slinky. And the priest, Gaspar de Carvajal, on whose journal Werner Herzog based the film, his face unbeatific and slightly grungy, tells the desperate Inés, wife of Pedro de Ursúa, whom Aguirre has had shot,“You know, my child, for the sake of our lord, the Church has always been on the side of the strong.” What truth. When Ursúa is finally killed, Inés walks into the forest toward whatever horrible fate she imagines, whatever horrible stories have been told of the inhabitants, rather than stay with what she has come to know as the true carnage. As they float by on the river, Aguirre’s puppet Emperor of El Dorado, Don Fernando de Guzmán, declares, “All the land to the right and all the land to the left now belong to us. I solemnly and formally take possession of all this land.” Conquest in the film is unadorned—no dreadful love stories, no heraldic music, no chivalrous men—just the obsequious, the craven, the greedy, the power grabbing, and the homicidal. It is said that Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was influenced by Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. You can see that. But Coppola’s film is far too romantic, far too intent on American moralism, mysticism, and spectacle. Herzog’s Aguirre is as remorseless as conquest.
Dionne Brand is a poet, novelist, and essayist. She teaches in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph.