Similar to Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo opens with the image of a dense, potent South American jungle. There is no throng of Spanish soldiers and the story’s fictional narrative transpires three centuries after that of his 1973 masterpiece, but Fitzcarraldo is nonetheless evocative of Herzog’s former work. The differences between the two films are disputably less discernable than their similarities; Herzog transports Spanish soldiers, their cannons, and women in elevated thrones across a Peruvian mountain in Aguirre, and in Fitzcarraldo summons a similar endurance, replacing the materialistic army with a 340-ton steamship.
This resemblance between Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo is particularly curious considering that either film is often regarded as Herzog’s masterwork. Aguirre is the more mystified and hallucinatory work (even the viewer inherits the questionable visions of the final sequence); Fitzcarraldo is a more objective record of a comparable fever dream, and as such is the preeminent testament of Herzog’s labor as a filmmaker. This is especially redoubtable considering the frequent experimentation and intended audacity in his filmmaking: For Heart of Glass, Herzog hypnotized each of his principle actors and real-life schizophrenic Bruno S. starred in both The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek. And then there are his documentaries, each of which display Herzog’s search for his self-penned “ecstatic truth.” Fitzcarraldo is noteworthy not for its success in relation to other films in his canon, but rather for its failure. In one climactic sequence, the title character witnesses in furious disbelief the swift dissolution of his ambitious entrepreneurial scheme. Herzog’s response to the many mishaps that challenged the film was presumably similar.
The film is taken from the story of 19th-century rubber-baron Fitzcarrald, himself a man of great wealth, who once oversaw the dismantling and reconstruction of a large boat in order to transport the vehicle over an expanse of land between two rivers. Herzog sustains Fitzcarrald’s ingenuity but replaces his primary industry (he dealt with rubber, which is reduced to a money-making scheme that would finance the man’s artistic aims) with a stubborn love for opera. Fitzcarraldo is a caricature designed to exhibit obsession—he evokes a cartoon character, befitted with a limited emotive range and a lack of variety in his wardrobe.
Fitzcarraldo has become notorious for its near-failure and many obstacles. Jason Robards and Mick Jagger were respectively cast as the film’s title character and sidekick (this is after Jack Nicholson, who admitted his interest in the film to Herzog, declined the role because of the commitment it required). Robards was removed after he acquired dysentery and Jagger soon after resumed a tour with the Rolling Stones. Klaus Kinski was hired reluctantly and much of the preexisting footage had to be reshot. Kinski’s hostile rants and incompatibility would frequently surface; his behavior on the set of this film is arguably his most notorious. (It is claimed that the native Indians seen in the film were so greatly disturbed by Kinski that they offered, as a favor to Herzog, to kill the actor.)
There are other, more speculative controversies: the reported casualties from a plane crash, multiple death threats exchanged between Herzog and Kinski, and the enslavement of Indians to provide the film’s key scene in which a crude pulley system is constructed to ascend the giant steamship. In all, the action in Fitzcarraldo is distinctly autobiographical. The title character’s hubristic and self-imposed responsibility in forwarding esoteric culture to rural regions of the Amazon invariably mirrors Herzog’s own task in filming said transplant—it is an imposition, whose magnitude, notoriety, and ambition foster the offshoot beauty and strength of the film’s individual images.
In regard to the final, climactic sequence in which the steamship is bowled down Amazonian rapids, Herzog has discussed the biographic mishaps and violence endured to film it—he lays bare his many scars (physical and otherwise) on the commentary for the film’s DVD, regretful for all the pain they caused but nonetheless humbled by the art and process that produced them. The film’s posters and video boxes all contain the climactic shot of the steamship stilted upon a precarious wooded slope. This iconic image demonstrates the title character’s obsession, as well as Herzog’s own struggles to conceive it. It is perhaps the pinnacle of the director’s labor, and it is arguably the most formidable and defining image of his career.