Simon Foster looks back at one of most ambitious productions in moviemaking history.
26 Nov 2010 - 2:24 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

“You want to know the story of Fitzcarraldo? It's a strange story, a little bit Sisyphus-like. A story of the challenge of the impossible.” – Werner Herzog

German director Werner Herzog spent several days at the San Francisco residence of his friend Francis Ford Coppola in the summer of 1979. He was anxious, unsettled, eager to finalise the contracts on his latest project, the Peruvian-set epic Fitzcarraldo. He would try to read or meditate in the sunny front room of the dwelling, but the daylight heat became too intense by mid-morning; he watched the yachts on the bay try to harness the blustery conditions and contemplated the sailor's struggle in the face of nature's might. At that time, Herzog could not appreciate the irony of his observations; it would be nearly two years to the day when, deep in the Amazonian Basin, he tells a documentary crew, “We are challenging nature itself and it hits back. We have to accept that it is much stronger than we are.”

Fitzcarraldo represents arguably the most ambitious, brilliant, demented folly in the history of moviemaking. Werner Herzog, already lauded as one of the world's most eccentric film visionaries, was only 36 when he began writing the story of the man who brought opera to the jungles of the Amazon. The genesis of his script was a simple image: A gramophone atop an immense steamer, the operatic virtuosity of Enrico Caruso filling the dark corners of the most remote wilderness on the planet. The character of Fitzcarraldo (loosely based on the Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald) was a man obsessed, and the desire to honour that obsession was what drove Werner Herzog. It is also what drove the director to the brink of insanity – a stop-start 48-month shoot fuelled by blind artistic ambition, all but breaking down his resolve and mental acuity.

Initially, it is Fitzcarraldo's goal to build an opera house on a mountainous hilltop accessible only by boat. Travelling the tributaries of the region, specifically the Rio Maranon and Rio Ucayali, Fitzcarraldo finds a point where the parallel waterways are only separated by a small incline, less than a mile wide. If he could join these rivers, access to the virgin rubber tree forests (a multi-million dollar incentive for local businessmen) and land for his ambitious project would become his. This brings about the most extraordinary of visions – Fitzcarraldo will endeavour to move his 340 tonne, 3-storey steamship over the sodden hill and into the other river. And Werner Herzog and eschewing all modern movie trickery, did the same (with the help with the help of the native Aguarana tribe).

At the point of the film's production when the ship, the Molly Aida, begins her ascent over the hill, Herzog was already suffering incredible hardship. With 40 percent of the film shot, production shut down for six weeks when leading man Jason Robards contracted amoebic dysentery and sought medical help in US; his doctor refused to let the ageing actor return. Herzog was forced to recast the lead with the volatile Klaus Kinski (pictured), with whom he worked on Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Nosferatu (1979), and negotiate funding to reshoot all of Robards' scenes. (Especially hard given the film would now be in German, not English.) The film's second lead, Mick Jagger, playing Fitzcarraldo's confidant Wilbur, could not reshoot his scenes due to recording and concert commitments surrounding The Rolling Stones' 'Tattoo You' album release. His part was written out of the film and all the footage archived. Though these elements were out of Herzog's control, many of the hardships were a direct result of the director's unwavering devotion to realism and the vivid portrayal of the scope of Fitzcarraldo's dream.

Three ships were built or adapted for the shoot and had to endure a 2000 mile journey from the remote village of Iquitos, the nearest civilised outpost, to the film's shooting location. Every single component of the film's production had to be transported to the site via the river system, which often changed in depth and current flow overnight. Local tribes people were wary of westerners, as they had seen their land brutally exploited by petro-chemical and lumber interests in recent times; border tensions between Peruvian and Ecuadorian forces, all of whom had to be bribed to ensure passage of any cargo, meant nearby gunfire was often heard and its effect chillingly apparent. (Herzog's recalls his encounter with the floating corpse of a dead soldier as it lolled past his boat, “...on his back, swollen...birds had already hacked out his eyes and eaten away part of his face.”)

“I'm running out of fantasy. I don't know what else can happen now.” – Werner Herzog

The river's rapids, falls, banks and depth posed constant challenges, which paled next to the feat of immense engineering improbability: moving the Molly Aida over the hill. A complex system of pulleys and winches, most cut from the surrounding trees and some weighing as much as a tonne, were constructed in exactly the manner they would have been at the time of the film's early 20th century setting. The Aguarana tribesmen, whose involvement in the film ballooned from an initial 3 months into 6 and 12 month stints, were called on to work in thigh-deep mud (the result of the production's felling of native flora) to winch the ship uphill, most often only inches at a time. The production's chief engineer, Parcas Martinis, resigned over safety disputes; as the director pleaded for the integrity of “the central metaphor for this film,” Martinis warned of “a tremendous catastrophe,” of how as many as 30 locals would die if the capstan supporting the weight of the ship broke.

“If we have to push the boat, then the owner should be there behind it, too! If we die, then he should die, too!” – Aguarana tribal spokesman (via translator).

Werner Herzog was a man possessed. In addition to the ever-mounting expenses associated with his grand vision, he was also dealing with a tribal backlash designed to shut down the film, and fervent anti-colonisation activists. (German dissenters had travelled from Europe to distribute Holocaust literature, designed to link Nazi atrocities to the disregard they felt Herzog had for the native population.) The makeshift villages he had constructed for the Aguarana were rife with drunken violence, reflecting the low morale and homesickness of the indigenous people; at one point, a local Franciscan monk tasked with educating the producers on local customs recommended that prostitutes be brought in to help restore the men's morale (they arrived soon after).

Herzog also had to deal with an increasingly insufferable leading man. In a rant that was captured by Les Blank's crew for the documentary Burden of Dreams, Klaus Kinski says of the production, “You can't go anywhere; you can't escape from this fucking, stinking camp. You are completely captured here.” He pauses, and then says, “At least you have this view.” Kinski proved so unpopular with the Aguarana natives that, one evening, a tribal elder approached Herzog and offered to have the actor killed.

“Kinski says it (the jungle) is full of erotic elements. I see it more full of obscenity... violent, base... I see fornication and asphyxiation... and fighting for survival. There is a lot of misery. It is a land that God, if he exists, created in anger.” – Werner Herzog.

Filming ended in November 1981, four years after pre-production had commenced . The final large-scale exterior set-up was a sequence that involved one of the versions of the Molly Aida battling the Chirimagua rapids (“the angry spirits of the river”). In keeping with the production's run of misfortune, the steamer crashed into the river's rock walls, hurling the crew to the deck (splitting open the head and hands of cinematographer Thomas Mauch) and coming to rest on a sandbank, where it remained for many months. Several months after shooting ended, Herzog returned to the hill where the other version of the Molly Aida remained, and shot the final few feet of the great ship's climb with a reduced crew. By this stage, he was a shell of the spirited filmmaker that had envisioned the project, his ambitious drive all but exhausted. “I don't like the mud,” he said. “Sometimes, I'd just prefer to be sitting in an easy chair with a cup of tea next to me.”

Fitzcarraldo's shoot is unparalleled in terms of hardship and physical endurance, and Werner Herzog's relentless dedication to authenticity was received with a mixed curiosity by the international film community. The film won Herzog the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival and the San Sebastian Best Film honour, though the Oscar's voters ignored it in every category. Its commercial fate was even less rewarding and some critics spoke out against the director as being profoundly egocentric, even racist. (Cineaste magazine described it as the “kind of movie we would have seen in very large numbers had Germany won its wars.”)

Herzog was unrepentant, then and now. “If I had abandoned this project, I would be a man without dreams and I don't want to live like that,” he stated in Blanks' documentary. In the epilogue of 'Conquest of the Useless,' his 2004 account of the Fitzcarraldo shoot (sourced from from his stream-of-consciousness-like production notes), Herzog chronicles his return to the region. “I looked around, and there was the jungle,” he writes, “manifesting the same seething hatred, wrathful and steaming, while the river flowed by in majestic indifference and scornful condescension, ignoring everything: the plight of man, the burden of dreams, and the torments of time.”

Conquest of the Useless: Reflections on the Making of Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog, 2004
The Myth of Fitzcarraldo by Dan James Pantone, Ph.D. (published 2004, Iquitos News)
Documentary Burden of Dreams, directed by Les Banks, 1982
Cineaste, Vol 12, No. 4, p.42.