The Colossal Nature of ‘Fitzcarraldo’

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.

Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald has dreams of bringing the opera to the Peruvian jungle.

Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald has dreams of bringing the opera to the Peruvian jungle.

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.

From the documentary 'Burden of Dreams.' Werner Herzog's quest to drag a 320-ton steamboat over a steep hill.

From the documentary ‘Burden of Dreams.’ Werner Herzog’s quest to drag a 320-ton steamboat up and over a steep hill.

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 FitzcarraldoAguirre: 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.

For my money, this is one of the greatest cinematic images as far as spectacle is concerned.

For my money, this is one of the greatest cinematic images as far as spectacle is concerned.

No Arguments, Herzog Explores The Human Side Of Capital Punishment

For a moment, it seems that Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss might be another entry into the endless and controversial debate over capital punishment.

But after Herzog says that he doesn’t support the death penalty, the argument that never even existed in Into the Abyss ends. Instead, Herzog tackles a triple homicide in Texas that, for whatever reason, caught his eye. And if it catches his eye, it certainly is interesting enough to catch ours.

Capital punishment was in the midst of being repealed in my state of Connecticut while I watched this film. In his film, Herzog was examining the 2001 murders of Sandra Stotler, Adam Stotler and Jeremy Richardson by Michael Perry, who received the death penalty, and Jason Burkett, who received a life sentence.

What is important to consider when watching Into the Abyss is that Herzog clearly doesn’t want to make a decision on the merits of the death penalty. Instead, Herzog, who limits his presence with very little narration, mostly in the form of questions for his interview subjects, examines the American phenomenon of capital punishment with a weird excitement, exuberance and passion for the subject. Into the Abyss is a very human documentary.

It would have been easy for Herzog to examine a closed triple homicide case and raise points for and against the merits of executing Perry (who was eventually killed in 2010). But instead, Herzog uses one singular case as a medium for all cases. He doesn’t ask whether Perry himself deserves to die or whether he should be put to death, but dissects the existence of the situation through a human lens. In fact, in terms of a final question or solution, Herzog asks nothing. He simply observes the reaction of humans impacted by the situation.

Herzog locked down interviews with everyone he needed to for this film. The most chilling, of course, comes with Perry himself. Separated by an impenetrable barrier, Herzog listens to Perry’s chilling belief that he is innocent, despite the amount of evidence against him (a cigarette butt with his DNA on it was found UNDER one of the bodies). Weeks away from death, Herzog asks him what he’s thinking about, what he feels like. Perry’s composure and acceptance is terrifying itself. Perry’s casual conversation scared the wits out of me. Here is what Herzog said about his interview with Perry:

“I have seen quite a few men and one woman on death row, and according to my instincts no one was as dangerous as he was. I think he was the most dangerous of anyone I ever met.”  [source]

I tend to agree with Herzog’s determination on Perry. His lack of accountability for his crime and his cry for injustice was likely a glimpse of how scared Perry’s interior was. His exterior was calm, cool and chillingly collected.

Herzog plays the documentary out in parts and talks to Burkett, Burkett’s father (also in prison) and friends and family of the murdered victims. All provide perspective from all necessary angles that a capital punishment case would provide. The plight of the victims’ family is important, but so is the plight of the convicted killer’s family. Herzog nails it all from a non-judgmental and curious perspective. His passion for the subject overpowers any outright bias or prejudice that could have been placed on these people.

Into the Abyss is one of the more chilling documentaries I’ve seen in a long time. I was worried that it would end up being an argument about capital punishment. I was glad that wasn’t the case. Instead of hearing more of the same tired pros and cons that I’ve heard too often lately, I was relieved to feel informed about the side of capital punishment that actually matters: the human side.