In a few days, the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver. Long afterward the news came that all the donkeys were dead. I know nothing as to the fate of the less valuable animals. They, no doubt, like the rest of us, found what they deserved. I did not inquire. (Heart of Darkness)
It throws one a bit, to hear conquistadors slashing their way through the heart of the Andes speaking German. And there is an eeriness to the fact that the countenance of Aguirre more resembles that of a Visigoth in more humid climes than anything else. But Werner Herzog's fantastical Aguirre: the Wrath of God is the opposite of a blitzkrieg, and it is no sacking.
Indeed, like the character of Aguirre himself, many of the themes of the movie flit along its edges: the overturning of ancient civilizations is there more in the audience's historical understanding than it is depicted; the connivance of the Church of Rome is merely glanced at; the inner defect that drives men to greed and murder and betrayal.
The focus, as with many of Herzog's films, is on the quest itself -- the journey through an impossible jungle, over an unknown river. And this Herzog creates masterfully, pushing the movie at an almost unbearably slow pace, with often shaky cameras that come uncomfortably close to their subjects or pull strangely away. There is often a hallucinatory feel to the film (reminiscent, perhaps, of Jean Giono's The Horseman on the Roof), and a claustrophobia in which it is impossible to trust anyone, from the unknown Indians the party meets to the other members of the expedition itself. Nor is there any real understanding of the characters -- there is no introspection, no attempt at an explanation, a defense of the ideals that might drive these men and women onwards, ever deeper into the hostile unknown. There is only the force of a few personalities, blundering against the fast force of nature. There is only the quest itself.
The end is hardly a surprise -- it is the only end possible, Herzog seems to suggest. But it hardly matters. For Herzog, there is only the journey.