Sometimes one can only feel really quite pathetic when comparing plans to delivery. Now don’t fret, I’m not strictly referring to the fascinating day-to-day frustrations of a freelance government programme manager (although six months of pulling teeth and crafting copy has finally yielded a bloody website), I am of course referring to my shameful coverage of a certain previously vocalised BFI season for which I loudly proclaimed some grand plans for – talk about a lesson in managing expectations. When I first registered that the BFI would be holding an exhaustive season of Werner Herzog’s phenomenal half century of fiction and non-fiction dreams and visions my mind danced will all sorts of complex coverage, from a mixture of the documentaries to fictional epics, from the various American and European phases of his career, even attempting some coverage of his truly unusual fare such as Even Dwarves Started Small – now that’s a genuine cult film. Plagued by realism I finally withdrew to a mere four films, including the suicide inducing Stroszek which I haven’t seen for years but have always been deeply unnerved by the final fifteen or so minutes, the epic fascism of Aguirre Wrath Of God, and the literally hypnotic Heart Of Glass. Well, schedules are clearly my nemesis as a combination of job interviews, competing special cinema events and general illness have convened to make all three of these viewings impossible, but we have had a minor miracle in finally seeing one of the most infamous of Herzog’s obsessional odyssey’s. I’m not going to tire you with any context setting prose on Herzog’s extraordinary cinematic reach and contours as that has already been conducted by the best piece that The Guardian has commissioned all year, so lets take our maiden voyage into the dark of heartness….
In the dense pantheon of Herzog’s dreamers and madmen, rogues and bandits the figure of failed rubber baron Fitzcarraldo stands tall in his resplendent white suit, his eyes titled to the heavens as the beauty of Caruso cascades into the antediluvian jungle canopy. In a sweltering early 20th century Brazil Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski in a trademark role) has become obsessed with bringing the opera to the pulsating and putrid dense core of the jungle, as impossible a mission as only the dreamers and the driven figures of old can possibly embrace in order to drive civilisation forward, even as plans and schemes promise an icarus style plunge to failure. After his project to implement a majestic rail system across the Andes stalls the barking eyed obsessive convinces the local financiers of Bogota that he can circumnavigate the treacherous Ucayali River by traversing the neighbouring Pachitea waterway and decant his expedition to a parcel of unclaimed resources, an expedition which coincides with his insane notion to douse the wilds with the enlightening strains of Strauss, Puccini and Verdi. With seed funding (in perhaps two senses of the word) provided by the profits of his romantic and business partner Molly (Claudia Cardinale who is perhaps best known Once Upon A Time In The West) in a pique of inspirational chance Fitzcarraldo purchases and outfits a decrepit steamer and hires a motley crew of reprobates to accompany him on his aural odyssey – a half blind Dutch captain (Paul Hittscher) who promises he can circumnavigate the hallucinations of the jungle, a stoic Indian engineer Cholo (Miguel Ángel Fuentes) and the perpetually sozzled ships cook Huerequeque Enrique Bohórquez, both illusive figures in their only ever film appearances. Their task seems impossible folly, to pursue the treacherous waters where dark muttered threats of headhunters and cannibalism dwell, but if the gods are with them their improbable and impossible pilgrimage might just succeed.
Having not seen the film for many years and never being thoroughly gripped by previous viewings I can’t say I was thoroughly submerged in Kinski’s obsessional brilliance, but as a film of broad images and ideas it is quite a sulphuric achievement, an unswerving quest which slowly builds momentum over a languid near three-hour cruise. After the meandering tributaries of the staggered opening the film moves into faster flowing waters once the steamer is crewed and begins puttering into the dense emerald canopy, as Fitzcarraldo spares no quarter and mercilessly pursues his goal at the risk of not only his life but also his very soul. It’s slow and ponderous by contemporary standards but this is meant as praise rather than scorn, as Fitzcaralso’s quest blooms some quiet moments of poetic splendour, with mysteries of his inner, churning drives as scattered and diffused as a slowly digested, Amazon setting sun.
The dubbing on the film is vaguely distracting, I’m not sure if it is due to the usual sonic manipulation in order to make the print available to foreign markets (it’s a West German production, back before the Wall crumbled) but it certainly suffers from an uneasy mis-alignment of phrase which doesn’t marry with voice, the facial expressions and lip movements do not gel which suggests that the film must have been shot in different languages than the English But this is a small grumble for such an arresting piece, Kinski is his usual maniac self is utterly brilliant and magnetic, he anchors the entire film as our unswervingly driven hero, and you can’t help but get swept away in his zealous passion, His performance and the character is a meme for progress and humanities instinctual drive to multiply and conquer, as Fitzcarraldo encounters missionaries risking their immortal souls in order to bring Christ to the savages and clearly the primary motivating factor for the industrialists is the acquisition of wealth and power through expansion and colonization of new markets, new environments, but isn’t that an instinctive component of humanity Herzog seems to be suggesting, our intrinsic compulsion to navigate and explore, to master and tame this wild and unruly universe?
I think it’s fair to cement Herzog in the cinematic camp of ideas rather than a mere stylist, he clearly pours all his passion, his fascinations and curiosity into the world encompassing his narratives, motivations and drives, rather than being preoccupied with cinematic language, with crafting complex shot sequences and throwing a camera around a scene, his style arising organically from his characters, the subject matter dictating the form. You can see it in his marriage of documentary work and fiction work throughout his long career, his fiction films work as pseudo documentaries of non-fiction characters, whilst his bona-fide documentaries bio-pics of fantastical and larger than life subjects who have usually achieved incredible things. In either incarnation he has an unsurpassed eye for indigenous flora and fauna that nest throughout his films, there are very few directors who can so vividly evoke and populate such a tangible time and pungent place, and of course his trademark suspicion and hesitant truce with the implacable forces of climate and nature betray a man in constant Sisyphean battle with the menacing environment that surrounds our puny mortal shells. In one beautiful and absurdly poetic touch, Fitzcaraldo insists that his snorting long bellied pig will be given a crimson scrunched opera chair upon which to enjoy the arias, once his impossible mission is accomplished.
The experience of a dangerous journey upriver through the jungle with a rag-tag crew of expendables recalls Coppola’s earlier heart of darkness which was released only a couple of years prior to this films maiden voyage, and both pictures share a lucid incandescence of non-fictional excess, insanity and danger spilling over into the film world, or rather world of the film. The legendary tales of narcotics, conflict, cardiac arrests and cadavers sweating over Coppola’s searing symphony are similar to the same legends and darkly muttered myths which have coalesced around the production of Fitzcarraldo, they actually did haul a 300 tonne vessel across a mountain to another tributary using indigenous labour, a herculean feat which was physically accomplished and not photo-chemically enhanced through special FX or trick photography, an achievement which Herzog believes has crowned him as the ‘Conquistador of the Useless’. This melding of fiction and non-fiction of course elevates the film into a parallel dimension of appreciation and meaning, it’s certainly one thing for your leading protagonist to clearly adopt the persona of the director, it is quite another to repeat an incredibly dangerous and allegedly irresponsible engineering project although Herzog has always asserted that the highest pinnacles of safety were observed at all times. I suspect the nature spirits were just too terrified to incur the wrath of the Teutonic tyrant, as furiously obsessed and driven as Kinski’s ferocious avatar, although the battle was intense.
So, Herzogians will appreciate that there is a famous documentary Burden Of Dreams which excavates the making of the film which you can see a taster of here, and the legendary fits of rage that Kinski unleashed can be witnessed in this extract from the Herzog crafted My Best Fiend which is of course hilarious viewing, such material fondly reminds me of the superb comedy articles in the sadly defunct Hotdog movie magazine. Herzog has gained some real traction as film culture meme over the past decade given his lyrical idiosyncrasy and persona, the most recent of which would be his appearances on the popular Comedy Bang Bang comedy podcast, and his infrequent appearances on the Doug Loves Movles show, then of course there are the memes and the classics. For my sins with the exception of My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done I’ve actually covered all his releases since 2007 here on the blog, not bad going given his proliferate output, and its encouraging to see that according to IMDB he has another clutch of projects in development at the age of 70, including a bio-pic of Gertrude Bell and a TV series - is there nothing this titan of a man can’t do?