“Herzog is a music addicted gypsy who is a specialist on limited people (cripples, dwarfs, the blind and deaf) and has an outsized rage as extreme as his odd outre technique” – Manny Farber, 19751

As Herzog’s filmography continued past 1975, one could comfortably extend Manny Farber’s list of the German director’s specialist subjects. From today’s perspective these “limited people” of Herzog’s oeuvre seem more like the most unique examples of humanity cast against the most incredible and unknowable spaces of the planet. Rather than physical limitations, the Herzogian hero became cursed, compromised or limited through their insatiable dreams. A Bazinian – or even Warholian – director who privileges the living, breathing settings of his films, and whose work (whether documentary or fiction) finds links within their subjects.

Freestyle mountaineer Reinhold Messner (from 1984’s The Dark Glow of the Mountains) and aviation scientist Graham Dorrington (from 2004’s The White Diamond) chime with the irrepressible ambition of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald in Fitzcarraldo (1982). Those three films echo visuals we see in Herzog’s films again and again; the never-ending horizon and those exalted mist and clouds that encapsulate his poetry of dreams and the eccentric human spirit. A dreamlike approach to history, to narrative and to image distinguishes Fitzcarraldo. Herzog’s “music addicted” form distorts the facts of history to present imaginary incarnations of several historical figures; the story of an entrepreneurial westerner in Amazon country who dreams of building an opera house was based in reality on a man with a passion for jungle flowers. Analysing this seismic production it’s clear that historical fact was being compromised for Herzog to reveal himself and his own ecstatic dreams as the documentary subject of his own historical epic.

As the film’s eventual star Klaus Kinski writes, commenting on his previous collaborations with Herzog in his autobiography; “Herzog (has)…been raking in awards since Aguirre – there’s hardly a country where Aguirre, Nosferatu, or Woyzeck hasn’t gotten some kind of award”.2 Fitzcarraldo then arrived as both a cinematic event and a legend of the cinema. It earned its director the Best Director Award at Cannes but it was probably an Oscar that Herzog was aiming for this time: toward the end of the seventies Herzog had a grand vision to cultivate a larger, mainstream audience; to present his own self-styled brand of cinema to a Hollywood audience.

The grand story of Fitzcarraldo’s production begins before the film as we know it had been formed, with an English language version starring Jason Robards and Mick Jagger as combination lead characters that was abandoned due to scheduling and illness. The legend of Fitzcarraldo only begins with this footnote, its mythic pre-production and shoot produced a companion documentary in Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982). It also triggered the publication of a book-length memoir written by its director; Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo (2009). Never before has the behind the scenes footage so resembled in theme and plot the very fiction of the film it is documenting. The film is an aborted Hollywood epic transformed into a profane jungle romance with the illicit strangeness of a Jodorowskian midnight movie. The story of a wild underdog and his bordello madam girlfriend who sweet talks the rubber barons and bewitches a tribe of Indians into enlisting their hard labour toward his dream of an opera house in the jungle. An Amazonian odyssey aboard a goliath of an old crumbling steamer, Herzog’s camera fetishizes the surroundings with endless dreamy tracks of exotic woodland from the river, slow motion eeriness of the volatile Pongo rapids and a dizzying twirl of a helicopter shot above the tree tops as Fitzgerald and his crew survey the area from a high platform.

Fitzcarraldo carries a Buñuelian vulgarity in its satirical bent as well as in the controversy the film courted from the film makers. The filming of Fitzcarraldo reversed the nihilism and atmosphere of madness and death from his previous Amazonian set film Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and asks the audience to invest in Fitzcarraldo’s imperialism with many reviewers of the time pointing to the awkwardness of a German colonialist character, Hans Köning, speculating “Fitzcarraldo is a kind of film we would have seen in very large numbers had Germany won its wars.”3 The films richest statement is its portrayal of the rubber era and its wealthy barons, developing an insidious satire on the evils and ugliness of wealth. This is represented in perfect Herzogian visual motifs; after an establishing shot of the opera house in Manaus we cut closer to the stage coaches to see magnums of Champaign being uncorked and decanted into buckets for the horses’ refreshment. Kinski’s Fitzgerald is bought to a moonlight lakeside within the grounds of a baron’s mansion where large wads of cash are fed to surface feeding carp-ike creatures.

The final third of Fitzcarraldo is dedicated to its legendary event, which extended the controversy beyond the colonialist plot and towards calling into question the ethics of the director himself and his judgement in subjecting cast and crew to danger. The surrealist image of the huge steam ship being hauled up the steep mud hill was, as the director called it, “the great metaphor of my film”. Fitzcarraldo is abound with these kind of so called visual metaphors. Like the scene where Kinksi storms the church tower sounding the bell in raptures; delivering a raging proclamation to his town’s people. Herzog’s “ecstatic truth” is manifold; watching Kinski’s mystical gaze into the distance throughout the film has us almost believe he is a deity. As the film progresses we can never quite be sure how or if he has the natives under his spell, in actuality it was Herzog who was casting spells over everyone.

 

Fitzcarraldo (1982 West Germany 157 min)

Prod Co: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, Pro-ject Filmproduktion, Filmverlag der Autoren Prod: Samuel Goldwyn Dir: Werner Herzog Scr: Werner Herzog Phot: Thomas Mauch Ed: Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus Prod Des: Ulrich Bergfelder and Henning von Gierke Mus: Popol Vuh

Cast: Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, José Lewgoy

 

Endnotes

  1. Manny Farber, Negative Space: Manny Farber at the Movies.(Da Capo Press, 1998), p. 300
  2. Klaus Kinski, Kinski Uncut (Bloomsbury, 1996), p. 272.
  3. Hans Köning, “Fitzcarraldo”, Cineaste,12:4 (1983), p. 42.

About The Author

Adam Powell is a writer on cinema based in London. His primary research areas are the legacy of Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson in modes of realism in contemporary world cinema as well as post war British Cinema and London on film. He has conducted extensive interviews with Carlos Reygadas, Nicolas Winding Refn and Pedro Costa.