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PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: egoism, imperialism

CHARACTERS: Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), Ursua (executed expedition leader), brother Gaspar (the monk), Guzman (Emperor of El Dorado)

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR WERNER HERZOG: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1975), Heart of Glass (1976), Nosferatu: The Vampyre (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), Grizzly Man (2005)

SYNOPSIS: “Based on the journals of Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, Aguirre, The Wrath Of God is director Werner Herzog's hallucinatory tale of Spanish colonialists searching for El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, in 16th-century Peru. When the travellers reach an impasse, a scouting party is assembled to search for any traces of the mythical empire. As they attempt to forge their way through the dense jungle, more and more of the party falls ill while their ruthless leader, Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), grows increasingly insane. Widely considered to be Herzog's finest film, Aguirre, which shares much in common with Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, highlights the director's visionary approach to filmmaking. Like Coppola's film, accounts of Aguirre's shooting are laced with legendary incidents, such as the time Herzog reportedly held a gun to Kinski's head to get him to finish a scene. Whatever transpired between Herzog and Kinski, it made for astonishing cinema, as evidenced by the actor's haunting performance and the entire film's powerfully hypnotic mood.” – A transcription of the film’s dialogue is here:


1. After the mutiny, Ursua’s wife pleads with the priest to prevent Aguirre from killing Ursua. The priest responds as follows: “Thou lettest man flow on like a river and Thy years know no end. As for man his days are like grass as a flower on the field, so he blossoms. For when the wind passeth over it and it is gone , and the place thereof shall know it no more. You know, my child, for the good of our Lord the Church was always on the side of the strong.” What’s the priest’s point, and what was his interest in continuing with the expedition?

2. The native prince and translator tells his story: “I was a prince in this land. No one was allowed to look directly into my eyes. But now I'm in chains, like my people and I must bow my head. Almost everything was taken from us. I can't do anything, I'm powerless. But I am also sorry for you because I know there is no escape from this jungle.” Should we feel sorry for the prince?

3. Why did Aguirre make Guzman the Emperor of Eldorado, and what function does the Emperor serve in the film?

4. What are we to think about the natives in the film, particularly the cannibals?

5. Two natives come on board the raft, and describe a myth that foretells the coming of the foreigners. Why do the soldiers react the way that they do?

6. The obstacles on their journey included disease, lack of food, harsh physical terrain, and assault from natives. As things get progressively worse on the raft, what are the various motivations of Aguirre, the Emperor, the monk, the black slave, and the others to continue?

7. Aguirre first makes an illusion to himself being the “wrath of God” here: “If I, Aguirre, want the birds to drop dead from the trees the birds will drop dead from the trees. I am the Wrath of God! The earth I walk upon sees me and quakes! But whoever follows me and the river, will win untold riches. But whoever deserts. . . ." What’s his point about being the “wrath of God”?

8. Throughout the movie one of the natives plays a pan flute, with happy sounding songs. What is the point behind this contrast?

9. Ursua, the overthrown leader remains alive, saying nothing. What is he thinking?

10. The Emperor is well fed while the other men go hungry. Why not a more equal distribution of his food?

11. The Emperor insists on getting rid of the horse, which they do, and someone then strangles the Emperor. With the Emperor gone, Ursua is then hanged. What are the political dynamics here?

12. Ursua’s wife walks off into the jungle, knowing that she will face death by the cannibals. What was she thinking?

13. Aguirre’s daughter is one of the last to die. What was her role in the story?

14. After his daughter dies, Aguirre states: “I, the Wrath of God will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the earth has ever seen. Together we shall rule this entire continent we will endure. I am the Wrath of God! Who else is with me?” What’s his point?

15. As everyone dies at the end, with only Aguirre remaining, the raft is overrun with monkeys. What’s the point of the monkeys?


Aguirre was quite confusing for many reasons. The first being that is was a movie about Spanish soldiers yet the story is told in German with English subtitles. Also, several actors don't appear to be of Spanish descent and some of the actors are clearly speaking different languages but have had their lines dubbed in German. Once I got past the fact that the actors' mouths sometimes didn’t match up with what was being said, the movie presented several questions about ownership of land and provides an interesting glimpse into how people behave when they suspect that they’re going to die. The main character Aguirre feels that it is his right to claim all the land that he travels through, much like other famous explorers from different countries throughout history. Like other explorers in history, Aguirre and the crew ran into native people living on the land, but completely ignored any rights these people had and claimed it for themselves. As history has shown us, this usually doesn’t please the native inhabitants, and these natives are no exception. For their lack of respect for the native people, Aguirre et al wind up being picked off their raft by poison darts from the natives. — D.O.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God: This movie starts out with a search for El Dorado. The group has to trudge through the jungle with a large quantity of weaponry that it makes it difficult to be able to travel. A rebellion is made after a while and the leader of the group ends up getting shot by his fellow members when they are dazzled with stories of riches. The man who started the uproar wants the leader to be put to death, but the newly appointed leader refuses to let that happen and pardons the man. Aguirre is very fearsome and barely anybody tries to protest against him on his decisions. After the one leader dies, Aguirre finally is able to take command over the scared army and do things his way. He has the old leader who was pardoned hanged for his own security and power. The mistress of the old leader takes her leave and randomly starts her journey out into the wilderness of the jungle. It seems after all that has happened that she doesn’t seem to care what happens to her even though she is deciding to walk in a jungle that is full of cannibals. Aguirre and his crew are overrun at a point and are killed by arrows, but even in his last moments he seems like he is ruler of the world. — D.H.

Aguirre is definitely an important and relevant piece of film, without which we probably would not have Apocalypse Now … but it also can come across as quite weird to the average viewer. The film opens to a beautiful long shot of soldiers—Spanish Conquistadors to be precise—marching down a jungle mountain. Eventually, we meet our main character, Aguirre. Aguirre and friends find themselves in the new world under the command of Pizzaro, who sends them ahead of the rest of the group to find the fabled city of ‘El Dorado’. Aguirre takes the opportunity almost immediately to seize power amongst this smaller group in a religion-infused, fanatical, crazed mission to create his own kingdom in the New World. By the end of the film, Aguirre finds himself the last man alive on a raft overrun by monkeys, whose significance escapes me. It’s a great story and the cinematography is amazing, but the pacing is a little slow by today’s standards and the acting can be a bit over the top at times. Still, Aguirre has a lot to say about the dangers of unchecked, unquestioned power, but also a lot to say about the futility and banality of human endeavor: despite all the men’s efforts, they are all claimed by the jungle in the end. This is especially highlighted by gorgeous shots of the raft appearing insignificant as it travels down the gullet of the river through the jungle, swallowed up by and indifferent and hostile environment. This is a must see for film buffs or even Apocalypse Now fans. — J.B.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God was one of the most interesting movies we watched this semester. Similar to Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Aguirre focuses on obsession and madness. The movie is about Aguirre, a conquistador who initiates a rebellion against the leader of a search party. Aguirre takes over the search party and insists on leading everyone further into the Jungle though it is obviously the wrong thing to do. He appoints a minor nobleman as Emperor over the land they are passing through. By the end of the movie he has gone completely insane. He gives himself the title The Wrath of God, and claims that he will found a dynasty by sleeping with his own daughter who has just died. I think this movie raises some interesting issues about the nature of government. Aguirre has become leader through force and the threat of force. If the crew were truly free to choose, the majority would not want him as their leader. They are thrust into a situation not of their own choosing. The fact that they do not rebel against Aguirre or the puppet Emperor appointed by him does not mean that they wish these people to rule. Rather, it means only that they value their life more than freedom. Social contract theory fails to legitimize Aguirre’s power. First no one on board the raft ever signed a social contract. No one ever freely agreed to submit to Aguirre’s rule. Secondly, their continued participation in life aboard the raft does not offer proof of implied consent. A person drafted and forced to fight in a war cannot said to have freely or voluntarily chosen the situation in which he finds himself since the use of force is involved. Aguirre’s rule is based on that of every government: force and the threat of force. It cannot be said that Aguirre’s leadership is any more or less legitimate than the government they left behind in Spain or even the democratic governments of today. A truly free society would be one in which people could opt out of any government program or even any government. The common reply to this view is often found on bumper stickers: “America love it or leave it!” But the fact that people can become citizens of other countries does not make them free. As 19th century abolitionist and lawyer Lysander Spooner wrote: “A man is none the less a slave because he is allowed to choose a new master once in a term of years. Neither are a people any the less slaves because permitted periodically to choose new masters.” — N.T.
Aguirre is really, at its heart, a story about the descent into madness. First off, I thought the cinematography of the movie was astounding. And some of the philosophical issues brought up are important, too. First, the character and role of the priest brings up interesting questions. Is this man a representative of the Catholic Church as a whole. If he is, it is certainly a grim picture. For here is man who clearly takes the “might is right” viewpoint when it comes to morality. His main interest seems to be spreading the Christian religion, but not for the good of Christianity, but for his own salvation. It is also quite possible after the change of power that he seeks to establish his own church that he would have ultimate power over here in the new world. Also interesting is Aguirre’s increasing self-delusion driven by his lust for glory and power. His, the priest’s, and the various other characters’ descents into madness at the hands of their selfish desires is, I think, the central moral issue at hand in the film. That acting on these impulses only lead to ruin for those so doing. — T.E.

“Aguirre; Wrath of God” is a rather unusual foreign German-speaking movie; however I am not saying that the movie was not enjoyable. The setting is based on the deep jungles of South America, along the Amazon River. Our main character Aguirre has led a mission of conquistadors into the dangerous jungle in search of the native myth of the city of Gold El Dorado. There are many philosophical themes throughout the movie. However, the overall message of this movie conveys the meaning of what it means to be human. We find that the mighty Emperor had no problem with treating his men poorly, while eating a bountiful feast while the men starved to the point of hallucinations. Even within the church we find human depravity or perhaps hypocrisy on the part of the priest, when he states, “Thou lettest man flow on like a river and Thy years know no end. As for man his days are like grass as a flower on the field, so he blossoms. For when the wind passeth over it and it is gone, and the place thereof shall know it no more. You know, my child, for the good of our Lord the Church was always on the side of the strong.” We see here that when faced with so called tribulations” the church will look out for itself despite what they say they stand for. Aguirre ends up being the only survivor by his exploitation and brutality toward those around him, which he truly summarized in his own words, “If I, Aguirre, want the birds to drop dead from the trees the birds will drop dead from the trees. I am the Wrath of God! — A.V.

In the film “Aguirre: Wrath of God” I was astonished at the beauty of this film. The wilderness really makes its presence and importance of the movie noticeable in many scenes. For instance, the terrain, native savages, and dangerous rapids spell disaster for all of these adventurers that seek the legendary city of El Dorado, the city of gold. There is an interesting moment toward the end where Aguirre is the only man left alive in the treacherous wilderness when a large group of countless monkeys hoard the raft with him. This is a prolific example of how alone man is in the wild and how vulnerable we, as humans, are compared to the dangers that lurk in the jungle. Evidence of egoism became extremely apparent when Aguirre attacks one of the crew who mentions mutiny. Aguirre clearly states that if any man wishes to separate they will meet the same fatal occurrence that the man he kills.. Evidence of futility arrives when Ursua is left to live and remains completely silent; he acted as if his fate were to die. Another seen that struck me as odd is when Aguirre appoints Guzman, there was not much discussion and it seem like he played the role of a patsy. Basically, if nature or the savages don’t kill you, all you have to do as a leader is mess up and someone will replace the old emperor Imperialism was also an essential element of this movie, and we see it when they meet the locals and just start claiming land as if no one would care. They were all willing to take a huge gamble for riches, fame, land, and to the slaves freedom. — D.M.

Aguirre: Wow! That isn’t the word I would use to describe this movie but to describe my amazement at how nuts the early conquistadors were. I thought the movie overall was going to be an abortion but it wasn’t quite as bad as I thought it would be. Those guys were fervent. They faced some really unbelievable situations. I tried to put myself in their shoes, imagining leaving my home for a journey by ship that must have lasted months to some strange land with unknown hazards and resources with no guarantee that there will be anything worth finding. This was essentially a suicide mission, as seen in the film. To the antihero Aguirre, madness isn’t a health condition, it’s a way of life. After starting a mutiny against his leader, who was appointed by the ruler of his own country, and mortally wounding him he then proceeds to kill anyone who is loyal to the original leader. He enters a downward spiral that, through the course of the movie, left me feeling depressed and hopeless. I imagine this was what the director was hoping for. What really made me feel bad was that poor horse. It seemed like every time Aguirre got pissed he was hitting that poor disheveled horse. They should have changed the name of the movie to Aguirre: Scourge of Ponies. I’m no animal lover but I really felt sad for that horse. Overall I enjoyed the movie. It kept my attention at least. — J.R.

I am really undecided about how much I liked or disliked Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I guess I am indifferent to foreign films; however, I will say that there is much to be appreciated about foreign films and how other cultures present cinema and filmmaking. This movie is about a group of conquistadors, who are on the search for El Dorado. It becomes apparent later in the movie that under the orders of Pizzaro, a small team of men are told to go ahead and search the area. Ursua and Aguirre are put in charge of the small outfit. However, dissension among the team begins to reach a feverish high, and loyalties are tested. Aside from that and whole lot of monkeys present in the movie, which I find hilarious for some reason, I really find this to be a very confusing movie to watch. With that being said I really wanted to like this film because it is a foreign film and I want to be a cultured individual who can appreciate things outside of American culture, but it was just hard to follow for me. Out of the films reviewed for this portion of the class I would probably rate this as the lowest, but the philosophical content has a lot of potential especially questions about what is reality or what is the reality of an individual who is stark raving mad (Aguirre) and there is some morality issues at stake in this movie that fuel discussion. — J.M.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God was unlike any other film I had seen prior. I found the characters, which were supposed to be Spanish conquistadors, speaking German. It took me a few minutes to get used to it. I really liked the opening sequence where the cameras show everyone trekking through the mountains. It shows audiences how difficult their situation was. I also enjoyed watching them go down the river in their rafts. The rushing water looked real and dangerous. I think that’s one thing I especially enjoyed about this film­you can tell it was not made on a set in a Hollywood lot. I thought Klaus Krinski was a great actor; he creeped me out from the beginning. The use of the jungle was interesting. It trapped them from the outside world. It was mysterious, and nobody really knew what was out there (besides a few natives). People were killed more rapidly as the film went on and as Aguirre gained power. I thought Inez’s walk into the jungle was intriguing. Was it a suicide of sorts? Was she in her right mind? What became of her? I can understand a desire to escape from her situation strong enough to risk being killed or taken prisoner in the jungle. She would have almost certainly died with all the others if she had stayed. The end was a bit puzzling. I don’t know if the monkeys were there to symbolize something or just to add another strange element to the film. I was surprised when Aguirre said he would marry his daughter. I think this was just an exaggerated way of claiming all possible power. — C.R.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God: This independent German film directed by Werner Herzog portrays the story of a group of Spanish conquistadors down the Amazon River in search of El Dorado, the City of Gold. Although some portions of the film seemed to drag, it featured some beautiful nature shots and also presented compelling philosophical arguments. The main philosophical issues in the movie centered around egoism and imperialism. Aguirre’s character represents the philosophical position of egoism in that he makes decisions based on his own self-interest, meaning that he is not concerned with how his decisions will affect others. This is exemplified in the scenes in which Aguirre progresses toward his self-professed goal of power and fame, including when he appoints Guzman the Emperor of El Dorado and when he kills everyone at the end of the film. Aguirre even comments on his own aspirations to achieve power and fame by saying: I, the Wrath of God will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the earth has ever seen. Together we shall rule this entire continent we will endure. I am the Wrath of God! A second philosophical theme this film presents is that of imperialism. This theme is conveyed in a variety of ways, but first in the blatant contrast between the lifestyles of the conquistadors and the natives. Although holding fast to the tenants of traditionally sophisticated and hierarchical Spanish culture did the group little good during many scenes in the film, doing so allowed the conquistadors to feel as though they were better than the natives and empowered the Spaniards to control them as their slaves. In one compelling scene, the monk traveling with them attempts to convert two natives (a man and a woman) brought on to their raft. When they profess the telling of the conquistadors arrival was foretold and anticipated, the monk accuses them of heresy and sentences them to death. The conquistadors had no respect for the natives and merely acted in their own self-interest while holding fast to their traditional imperialist Spanish culture. — J.D.

Aguirre: I did not like having to read the subtitles throughout the entire movie. The plot was semi interesting. I do like learning about Central America, so the actual journey they took through the jungle was very neat. The main character Aguirre is very mean and hateful. All along he wanted to become the head person in charge and keep only the people he needed to help him survive. If I were in the movie, I would have just disappeared and died in the jungle. Death could not have been as bad it how Aguirre was treating the people. He killed off everyone who he did not like or need. He was only concerned about reaching the city and procreating with the only female left alive. He tried his best to play God, and it just did not work. He could not control everything, something was destined to fail. — C.J.

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