Not Coming To A Theater Near You: Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo

Similar to Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo
opens with the image of a dense, potent South American jungle. There
is no throng of Spanish soldiers and the story’s fictional narrative
transpires three centuries after that of his 1973 masterpiece, but
Fitzcarraldo is nonetheless evocative of Herzog’s former work. The
differences between the two films are disputably less discernable than
their similarities; Herzog transports Spanish soldiers, their cannons,
and women in elevated thrones across a Peruvian mountain in Aguirre,
and in Fitzcarraldo summons a similar endurance, replacing the
materialistic army with a 340-ton steamship.


This resemblance between Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo is particularly
curious considering that either film is often regarded as Herzog’s
masterwork. Aguirre is the more mystified and hallucinatory work
(even the viewer inherits the questionable visions of the final
sequence); Fitzcarraldo is a more objective record of a comparable
fever dream, and as such is the preeminent testament of Herzog’s
labor as a filmmaker. This is especially redoubtable considering the
frequent experimentation and intended audacity in his filmmaking: For
Heart of Glass, Herzog hypnotized each of his principle actors and real-
life schizophrenic Bruno S. starred in both The Enigma of Kaspar
Hauser and Stroszek. And then there are his documentaries, each of
which display Herzog’s search for his self-penned “ecstatic truth.”
Fitzcarraldo is noteworthy not for its success in relation to other films
in his canon, but rather for its failure. In one climactic sequence, the
title character witnesses in furious disbelief the swift dissolution of his
ambitious entrepreneurial scheme. Herzog’s response to the many
mishaps that challenged the film was presumably similar.
The film is taken from the story of 19th century rubber-baron
Fitzcarrald, himself a man of great wealth, who once oversaw the
dismantling and reconstruction of a large boat in order to transport the
vehicle over an expanse of land between two rivers. Herzog sustains
Fitzcarrald’s ingenuity but replaces his primary industry (he dealt with
rubber, which is reduced to a money-making scheme that would
finance the man’s artistic aims) with a stubborn love for opera.

Fitzcarraldo is a caricature designed to exhibit obsession–he evokes a
cartoon character, befitted with a limited emotive range and a lack of
variety in his wardrobe.
Fitzcarraldo has become notorious for its near-failure and many
obstacles. Jason Robards and Mick Jagger were respectively cast as
the film’s title character and sidekick (this is after Jack Nicholson, who
admitted his interest in the film to Herzog, declined the role because of
the commitment it required). Robards was removed after he acquired
dysentery and Jagger soon after resumed a tour with the Rolling
Stones. Klaus Kinski was hired reluctantly and much of the preexisting
footage had to be reshot. Kinski’s hostile rants and incompatibility
would frequently surface; his behavior on the set of this film is
arguably his most notorious. (It is claimed that the native Indians seen
in the film were so greatly disturbed by Kinski that they offered, as a
favor to Herzog, to kill the actor.)

There are other, more speculative controversies: the reported
casualties from a plane crash, multiple death threats exchanged
between Herzog and Kinski, and the enslavement of Indians to provide
the film’s key scene in which a crude pulley system is constructed to
ascend the giant steamship. In all, the action in Fitzcarraldo is
distinctly autobiographical. The title character’s hubristic and self-
imposed responsibility in forwarding esoteric culture to rural regions of
the Amazon invariably mirrors Herzog’s own task in filming said
transplant–it is an imposition, whose magnitude, notoriety, and
ambition foster the offshoot beauty and strength of the film’s
individual images.

In regard to the final, climactic sequence in which the steamship is
bowled down Amazonian rapids, Herzog has discussed the biographic
mishaps and violence endured to film it–he lays bare his many scars
(physical and otherwise) on the commentary for the film’s DVD,
regretful for all the pain they caused but nonetheless humbled by the
art and process that produced them. The film’s posters and video
boxes all contain the climactic shot of the steamship stilted upon a
precarious wooded slope. This iconic image demonstrates the title
character’s obsession, as well as Herzog’s own struggles to conceive it.
It is perhaps the pinnacle of the director’s labor, and it is arguably the
most formidable and defining image of his career.
originally published and ©, 2003
– Rumsey Taylor

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