Uphill Battle

We love stories about ambition. About men (always men) who dream and build the impossible. The messianic wonder of Lawrence of Arabia; the phallic hugeness of the Empire State Building or the Washington Monument; the anything-for-spectacle expedition of King Kong; even the improbable triumph of the Founding Fathers who stitched a new nation together out of some squabbling British colonies. In that same tradition, Werner Herzog forged the delirious man vs. nature fable Fitzcarraldo (1982).

Here, the man with the plan is industrialist Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, called Fitzcarraldo by the Peruvians. He’s played by Herzog’s “best fiend” Klaus Kinski, whose intense blue eyes and shock of blond hair contrast jarringly with the Amazon rainforest. Obsessed with the opera—especially turn-of-the-century tenor Enrico Caruso—he pledges to build an opera house in the city of Iquitos. This unfeasible dream and its financial burden lead him to an untapped grove of rubber trees, accessible only after crossing a steep strip of land with a steamship. It’s a brazenly stupid act, but he does it, and he carries the audience with him.

Like the earlier Herzog/Kinski collaboration Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo is defined by its eccentricity. Herzog maps incongruous aural textures onto one another, layering the dazed Popol Vuh score, the dubbed-in German, the buzz of the rainforest, some Caruso arias, and Kinski’s plaintive yowls. Broadly speaking, too, it’s about incongruity. Through sheer force of will, Fitzcarraldo brings his European clothes, machinery, and music into hostile territory where they do not belong. His faith in opera blinkers him, leading him into a morass of hubris and monomania. For Herzog, manifest destiny is a symptom of mental illness.

In the national myths I mentioned earlier (Lawrence, skyscrapers, Kong, George Washington), we’re absolved of moral responsibility for the sake of adventure. In stark opposition, Fitzcarraldo’s sociopathic self-obsession contaminates all of the film’s thrills and spills. His naked contempt renders the story’s underlying mechanics visible: how racism and genocide are yoked to imperialism; how a lone, self-aggrandizing white man rides on the backs (and land) of non-white laborers. How the whole film, like the actions of missionaries and conquistadors everywhere, is premised on a self-destructive delusion.

And that delusion is suffocating. Even with Amazonian aerial shots galore, Fitzcarraldo feels claustrophobic, since we’re always rooted in its title character’s headspace. During the film’s centerpiece sequence, Herzog shoots the aggregation of pulleys dragging the ship, the army of native “bare-asses” recruited to work them, and the ship’s incremental motion with a mix of fetish and fascination. It’s painful to watch, because it twists traditional audience response: do you recoil or marvel? Does the grandeur justify the futility?

Based loosely on a true story, Fitzcarraldo is infamous for its troubled production. Even if original stars Jason Robards and Mick Jagger hadn’t left mid-production, Herzog still had the self-assigned, Herculean chore of pulling a steamship over a hill, sans models or visual effects. But as he said during an investors’ meeting when the project was in danger of collapse, “If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that.” In this respect, then, it’s also an autobiographical meta-narrative about the audacity of filmmaking—of squandering millions to physically reproduce nonexistent worlds.

Unlike so many artists, Herzog doesn’t romanticize the act of creation, but rather recognizes its selfishness. Throughout his work, it feels like a fundamental, akin to breathing. He films violently, even destructively. (Just look at Les Blank’s making-of documentary Burden of Dreams, or his hellish relationship with Kinski.) The ethos of Fitzcarraldo reminds me of a quote from William Faulkner: “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” For both men, writing or building or filmmaking are anything but benign; they flow from dark, atavistic drives. Werner Herzog would not hesitate to rob his mother.

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