The Burden of "Fitzcarraldo"

by Sten Johnson ("on location" in Peru)

There are deeper strata of truth in cinema…[they] can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.
Werner Herzog,
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, April 1999

Werner Herzog's 1981 film "Fitzcarraldo" is as famous for the story of it difficult production as it is for its own merits as a classic fable of success against self-created odds. One tale unmistakably and poetically informs the other. The viewer's experience is inescapably affected by the knowledge that Herzog faced grueling conditions in the Peruvian Amazon, risked the lives of his crew, and abandoned special effects for Sisyphean footage of a 300 ton steamship dragged over a small mountain and then battered by rapids. In an act of arch self-consciousness, Herzog even invited filmmaker Les Blank to record the production as the documentary "Burden of Dreams", supplemented by a book containing a transcript, journals, and photographs that record his exaggerated reflections on filmmaking and the masochistic intersection he's made with nature at its most unforgiving: "nature here is vile and base…the trees here are in misery and the birds here are in misery". It is rare that such reflections actually produce a masterpiece, but what appears on film actually benefits from the outré intensity of both the director and star, Klaus Kinski. But although "Fitzcarraldo" is legendary for its flamboyant recklessness and technical verité, the end result is more remarkable for its discipline, mannered artifice and theatricality. The film's protagonist is obsessed with building an opera house in the jungle, but in its bizarre grandiosity, the film itself achieves something of the operatic sublime.

The script loosely adapts the story of an early twentieth century Peruvian rubber magnate. Kinski's Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, his name bastardized as "Fitzcarraldo", lives in the native quarter of turn of the century Iquitos, Peru, where he dreams of accumulating enough wealth to build a theatre in the manner of the grand opera in Manaus, Brazil, which he enters with near force in the film's earliest scenes to see Enrico Caruso perform after an arduous river journey. Supported by Molly, a brothel matron played by Claudia Cardinale, Fitzcarraldo first attempts to patent ice, to the scorn of local industrialists. When the project fails, he decides to enter the overpopulated rubber industry, purchasing a small remaining patch of land inaccessible by water and cut off by impassable rapids. Undaunted, Fitzcarraldo buy a steam ship and sails upstream against the Amazon, traveling up a narrow tributary. Avoiding the rapids, he decides to move the boat overland up a steep incline and into the adjacent river to reach his claim. With the assistance of a local tribe, entranced by Fitzcarraldo's white suit and Caruso 78s, the plan initially succeeds but ends poetically in disaster. During the following night, the natives release the ship from its moorings as a sacrifice to their deity, allowing it to drift beyond Fitzcarraldo's claim and into a series of cataracts from which it emerges barely intact. In compromised victory, Fitzcarraldo sells his remaining assets and assembles a local opera troupe for an onboard performance of Bellini's "I Puritani." He has his opera, if not his opera house.

Predictably, the ambitious production was marred by difficulties. Originally constructing a camp near Iquitos, the buildings were quickly burned to the ground by the local Araguana Indians, incensed at the intrusion. Jason Robards, the original lead, became ill with an intestinal virus and withdrew from the production, while a plane crash claimed the lives of several crew members. Klaus Kinski, who had arguably performed at his best in earlier Herzog collaborations such as "Woyzek", "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and "Nosferatu", replaced Robards but increased tensions with his erratic behavior. Following one tantrum, a Peruvian crew member earnestly approached Herzog and offered to kill the offending actor. Finally, to replicate one of the original Fitzcarraldo's most ambitious feats, an antique steamship purchased in Colombia was finally moved over a small mountain with the aid of a parade of engineers, several of which quit over fears that the project would kill the crew. Herzog finished filming in November, 1981.

In spite of his technical triumphs, Herzog's film is finally defined by its visual transformation of native detail. Contemporary Iquitos is quite different from the city of the film, which is roughly unchanged from the rubber frontier town of Fitzcarraldo's time. Less European in style and more primitive than the film suggests, colonial buildings are dwarfed by vast networks of less permanent wood and thatch houses. Even without the aid of cinematic re-imagination, Iquitos is full of its own ironic poetry and bizarre counterpoint. An "iron house" designed by Eiffel and reassembled from French materials has been converted into a ramshackle snack bar, while Fitzcarraldo street, named for the original industrialist, intersects with an avenue named after Lope de Aguirre, the subject of Herzog's 1972 "Aguirre, the Wrath of God", also filmed in the Peruvian Amazon. But an artificially European perspective is essential to the film's effect. In recasting the frontier town as a civilized point of departure for an immersion into natural disorder, Herzog evokes the stagy, staid innocence of other relections on pre-fall innocence, such as Wagner's "Das Rhengold." Following a dramatic conceit older than Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", the rain forest is cinematically transformed into the "green hell" of the earliest European explorers; overhanging trees obscure the sun as the ship travels stretches of river that appear impossibly narrow and oppressive. Kinski himself occupies the production like an operatic heldentenor, rushing from emotional peak to peak in a series of technically brilliant cadenzas.

Herzog's self-consciousness will haunt and pique the viewer. By deliberately chasing masochistic challenges parallel to his theme and recording them on film, he evokes a romantic ideal of artistic heroism at its most self-indulgent. But spurred by lofty ambition, he successfully transforms his materials into something remarkably original.

Departing on a recent flight from Iquitos, I found the gulf between the imaginative world of Fitzcarraldo and its humble setting was reinforced by evocative scenes of South American gothic. Billy Joel's "Uptown girl" played over the plane's loudspeakers while a 1950s era tanker truck refueled before takeoff. In the distance, decades old planes stood abandoned in the tall grass, rapidly disintegrating in the Equatorial heat as stewardesses distractedly handed out boxes of apple juice.

© 2002 by Sten Johnson. All rights reserved.

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