Fitzcarraldo isn’t epic; it’s operatic. It’s Herzog’s wretch of repulsion at capitalism’s all-consuming grand designs. It’s a cautionary tale – that some dreams are better left as fantasy. Most of all, it’s a labour of mad love.
“The investors called me in for a meeting,” says a starey-eyed Herzog in the Making Of doc. “They said, ‘How can you continue with this? Do you really have the strength or will?’ I replied, ‘If I abandon this film, I would be a man without dreams. I live my life or I end my life with this project!’”
The story follows Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, a crazed pioneer who plans to build an opera house in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. To raise the cash, he must exploit the local rubber industry. But to set up shop, he must somehow transfer a huge paddle steamer from one river system to another – over a parallel strip of dividing land.
Herzog’s story is based on a real Irish entrepreneur who tried to do the same – but at least in that case the trader had the sense to dismantle the boat and rebuild it in position. In Fitzcarraldo, Fitzgerald plans to enlist the help of local Indians to use makeshift block and tackle equipment and drag the ship up and over the land and plop it right where he needs it.
Then 37, Herzog had already gathered a reputation for feeding on strife and struggle and, as ridiculous as his hero’s fictional plan might seem, the director’s determination to film the hauling of the full-size boat is unspeakably mental.
Les Blank’s 1982 documentary Burden Of Dreams (included here) is a riveting behind-the-scenes account which recalls Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts Of Darkness doc on the making of Apocalypse Now. Both are stories of men being smothered by psychosis as they chase down absurd ambition. Like Francis Ford Coppola, waddling around the Philippines jungle a few years earlier, Herzog slowly cranked into a self-perpetuating spin-out. The more obstacles that were plonked in front of him, the more feral and unswerving his resolve...
In 1979, he and his crew built a camp in the dense Peruvian rainforest close to Ecuador. A border war was brewing and the local Aguadora Indians, furious about lumber and oil interests hacking down their homeworld, viewed Herzog’s moves with understandable paranoia.
There were death threats, dark rumours about Herzog’s intentions (murder, environmental rape, arms smuggling). Agitators distributed photographs of Holocaust mass graves among the Aguadora people, insisting that the German director and crew were on some sort of twisted mission of stealth genocide. Eventually, the camp was burned down by armed Indians and it took Herzog a year to find a new location and restart the project.
And then, five weeks into filming, his original Fitzgerald, Jason Robards, was crippled by dysentery. (Shades of Martin Sheen’s heart attack on the set of Apocalypse Now – only worse. Robards’ doctor convinced him to pull out entirely and he took the financial backers with him.) Soon after, Robards’ co-star Mick Jagger abandoned the film due to band commitments. Herzog had to start over, with a new lead. A sane man would have stepped back, switched to another project, sought a path of lesser resistance. But Fitzcarraldo isn’t the work of a sane man...
If addiction to chaos (and restlessness when all’s calm) is a sign of madness, Herzog had it bad. Clearly not kicked or bruised enough, he drafted in longstanding antagonist – Teutonic lionheart Klaus Kinski – as his new Fitzgerald. Their’s was a love-hate thing: they loved to hate each other. Herzog was beyond reason; driven to complete his film at all costs. Kinski was a bestial genius, drunk on vanity; ranting and rampaging when he didn’t feel at the centre of everything. It was the mad leading the madder... (In his lucid, avuncular commentary, Herzog notes that he originally wanted Jack Nicholson for the role because, compared to Kinski, “he would have been an island of sanity”.)
But despite (or because of) the toxic horror of the Herzog/Kinski relationship (see our movie feuds feature, page 68) Fitzcarraldo became their most fertile collaboration since 1972’s hallucinatory Aguirre, Wrath Of God. Kinski’s strutting mania perfectly mirrors the zeal of Fitzgerald’s folly, and Herzog’s sly eye for visual poetry is ever-roving (the titanic ship marooned half-way up a mountain; Kinski in white suit and Panama hat, stumbling through his mud-spattered promised land; an arthritic phonograph stubbornly spinning an opera record as the ship whirls out of control).
The film’s length, sparse dialogue and shapelessness only enhance its trance-like pull. Every bristling frame is saturated in Herzog’s visionary fervour. It’s a majestic and magnetic piece of cinema with a lunatic edge lacking in today’s CG-cushioned, health and safety-muffled franchise culture.
They really don’t make ’em like this any more. They wouldn’t dare.