Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982) tells the story of a man with grandiose, impossible dreams who struggles to achieve them against every imaginable obstacle – which also happens to be the story of Herzog while he was making the movie, though he couldn't possibly have known what an ordeal the shoot would be when he began work in the late 1970s. The film, loosely inspired by a true story, follows the title character (played to manic perfection by Klaus Kinski) as he pulls a massive steamship over a hill in the Amazon in an effort to access a rich rubber territory and bring opera to the natives. Herzog initially flirted with the idea of casting Jack Nicholson and making Fitzcarraldo for 20th Century Fox, but talks with that studio quickly became chilly when Herzog made it clear that he wasn't going to shoot the movie anywhere close to what the Hollywood suits would consider to be civilization. Herzog planned to film on location in the jungle, five hundred miles from the nearest major city; while he acknowledged that he probably could have shot the whole thing a day or so away from Ecuador's capital, he believed that being out in the middle of nowhere would have a palpable effect on the cast and crew that would seep into the celluloid of his movie.
He was right. Fitzcarraldo is one of the most awe-inspiring achievements in all of cinema, and it's largely thanks to the epic scale Herzog's remote setting facilitates. There are dozens of stunning juxtapositions of Fitzcarraldo and his surroundings that convey the absurdity of his endeavor with a poetry and immediacy that would be virtually impossible to attain on a set, or even a location that had any kind of connection to modern society. This all came with a cost, as the production was plagued with crises right from the beginning. While Herzog was fairly adept at navigating the complicated local politics and extreme cultural differences between the natives and the cast and crew, he couldn’t control the catastrophe that arose when original leading man Jason Robards became ill and had to return to the United States. Robards and costar Mick Jagger had already shot for weeks, but their footage all had to be scrapped when Robards’ doctor refused to allow him to finish the film and Jagger’s touring commitments with The Rolling Stones forced him to exit production as well. Herzog decided to cut Jagger’s role entirely and replaced Robards with Kinski – and then the real trouble began.
Setting Herzog and Kinski’s famously contentious relationship aside, Fitzcarraldo became a logistical nightmare due to the uncooperative surroundings and a variety of technical mishaps. Herzog’s decision to actually transport a steamship over a steep hill, without the aid of special effects or miniatures, was dependent on predictable weather, but unseasonable dryness increased the difficulty of moving the ship. (Nevertheless, the mud wasn't dry enough to keep equipment and crew from constantly sinking into it.) The local engineer hired to help create a system to transport the boat quit over safety concerns, and day after day Herzog was forced to respond to setbacks both serious (the boat sliding back down the hill, accusations of exploitation of the land and its people) and humorous (Kinski’s discomfort with local customs, the need to hire prostitutes to keep crew from sleeping with the natives, etc.). When Robards left the picture, Herzog’s investors asked him whether or not he should just give up; his response was that if he were to quit he would be a man without dreams. By the end of production, Herzog was singing a different tune – he said he was all out of fantasies, and called himself “a conquistador of the useless.”
Yet from the audience’s point of view, whatever Herzog had to suffer through was worth it – Fitzcarraldo is a singular achievement, and its greatness is inextricably tied to the circumstances of its production. Herzog was correct in thinking that the experience of shooting in the jungle and hauling the steamship over the hill without the help of modern technology would embed itself in the DNA of the movie; the film has a grandiose madness to it that is unthinkable with matte paintings or models. And it's great in ways different from other great movies; by conventional narrative standards it’s somewhat flawed, unevenly paced and misshapen, but it doesn’t matter because Fitzcarraldo has an expansive energy that more “perfect” films don’t. Only Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now achieves comparable effects, and for similar reasons; it and Fitzcarraldo are so large in their ambitions and emotional power that they make all other movies, even the best ones, seem small. (It’s one of the many reasons why Fitzcarraldo demands to be viewed on the big screen.)
At times the movie feels like it was shot with a hidden camera – the only giveaway that this is not a documentary is that the images are too gorgeous and precisely calibrated. Then again, Fitzcarraldo's power comes from the fact that it is a documentary of sorts. There's actually a "real" documentary about the film's making, a very entertaining one by Les Blank called Burden of Dreams that captures Herzog's struggles step by agonizing step. (Burden of Dreams also contains some erroneous and damaging implications regarding Herzog's alleged carelessness when it came to the safety of his cast and crew; the lack of context that allows Blank to mislead the audience for the sake of heightened drama is highly questionable and mars an otherwise great documentary.) As compelling as Burden of Dreams is, it's superfluous given that Herzog's film itself is a documentary of its own making; it’s a movie about a man whose dreams are constantly thwarted and tested by nature made by a man whose dreams are constantly thwarted and tested by nature. It contains a magic that is probably gone from movies forever – these days, who, with the advent of digital effects, would even think of paying the price Herzog did for his art? The kind of wild, foolish, wonderful dream represented by Fitzcarraldo no longer exists in the cinema, and we are all the poorer for its loss.
Jim Hemphill is the award-winning screenwriter and director of The Trouble with the Truth. His writings on cinema have appeared in Film Comment, American Cinematographer, and Film Quarterly, and he is the author of a regular column on directing for Filmmaker Magazine.