At the heart of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo is a madman with a dream.
The Irishman Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) wants to bring an opera house and some of the most distinguished performers to the Peruvian jungle.
Behind this grandiose and spectacularly staged film is Werner Herzog: a certain kind of madman in his own right. He wants Fitzgerald, who is the won’t stop at anything kind of madman, to drag a steamboat over a steep hill from one river to another.
The similarities between both Herzog and Fitzgerald are great. They’re accentuated in Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s fantastic making of documentary that shows the struggle and strife of Herzog, who also wrote the film, and his crew while trying to make such a chaotic, stunning and disagreeable film. This isn’t a peachy production. Kinski, not the first choice for Fitzgerald, wasn’t having the most fun and Herzog ended up reshooting the film from the beginning after Mick Jagger had to drop out.
But such an ambitious project shows both men as visionaries. Fitzgerald has swung and missed before – a failed attempt at constructing the Trans-Andean railways, a blunder that has lost him respect amongst the fat cats in his home of Iquitos. But that doesn’t stop him from trying to raise money for the opera house of his dreams by becoming a rubber tycoon in the most ambitious way possible. He buys a rundown steamboat, hires a crew of misfits from the local villages and sets off against the stream of the Amazon River – quite uncommon for some of these explorers. His idea? Bypass the rapids by going upstream and dragging the boat over a steep, mountainous hill to reach rubber trees.
Herzog’s vision is staging and capturing all of this. There’s a certain level of astonishment in Herzog’s man versus nature films that ditches studios and finds exotic and sometimes scary locations. If you actively consider the effort and work that goes into Herzog’s productions like Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Cobra Verde while soaking up their haunting images and ideas you’re bound to gain more appreciation for films that can often be challenging and chaotic in structure.
Both Fitzgerald’s money-making plan and Herzog’s artistic vision clash cultures. Fitzgerald is trying to bring the opera – what many in first-world countries might already consider upscale – to the jungle of Peru where the locals have never even heard the music before. Herzog is bringing a production with a size and scale that would probably be more suitable to Hollywood to the jungle. He’s using local places, local people and local conflict.
There’s this underlying sense of invasion and ignorance on the part of the “white man” that adds to the frenzied nature of Fitzcarraldo. They are using and in some cases abusing their land for profit, for dream and for luxury. This is all amplified when an unfriendly and dangerous tribe begins to work alongside with Fitzgerald, who they envision as a god-like figure, and help him towards his maniacal dream. These people live in the same jungle often characterized in the film as a dangerous, deadly place of the unknown. As one character spouts: “The jungle plays tricks on your senses. It’s full of lies, demons, illusions.”
I have the most admiration for Herzog, who like Fitzgerald goes to any length to complete their visions. Because dragging that 320-ton steamboat up and over the hill – that’s no joke, no trick, no special effects. Herzog actually does it. The creative madman in Herzog is the ambitious madman in Fitzgerald and vice versa.
Fitzcarraldo (and the accompanying documentary Burden of Dreams) is a total spectacle and one of the most rewarding film experiences in cinema. This colossal and challenging film is at times too chaotic and messy for its own good, but watching both Herzog and Fitzgerald strive toward their dreams is ultimately a masterpiece of the grandiose kind.