Herzog’s Unfilmable Nightmare – Sunday Herald

It’s 25 years since the ill-fated epic Fitzcarraldo – the story of a man who dragged a steamship over a mountain and through the Pervian Jungle –  won Werner Herzog the director’s prize at Cannes. Inter-tribal warfare, plane crashes, attempted murder, Mick Jagger and an ego-maniacal Klaus Kinski…  Nick Thorpe ventures deep into Peru to to recall the mayhem of an almost unfilmable movie.

BEGGING does not come naturally to film directors, but in the early months of 1981 Werner Herzog was ready to try anything. On a flying visit home from the Amazon jungle, he had to stop his backers pulling the plug on what was threatening to become the most disastrous movie ever made.

“If I’d had to climb down to Hell itself and wrestle the film out of the claws of the devil, I would have done so,” the German director later recounted. “It was just not possible for me to allow myself private feelings of doubt whilst in the middle of making Fitzcarraldo.”

And little wonder. Two years into pre-production, the Sisyphean tale of a charismatic rubber baron who dragged a steamship over a mountain was beginning to resemble a dark metaphor for the process of film-making itself. Every inch of progress had been a battle. Before a single frame was shot, location work deep in the Peruvian jungle was plagued by newspaper smears from international campaigners convinced (wrongly) that the indigenous extras were being exploited. In any case, the production camp where they were to be housed soon had to be evacuated following the outbreak of a border war with Ecuador, and the camp was later burned to the ground.

Undeterred by this inauspicious start, the legendary creator of Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Nosferatu the Vampyre identified a new location and tried again. By the end of 1980 he had flown in his cast and completed 40 per cent of principal photography when his leading man contracted amoebic dysentery. Too ill to continue, Jason Robards left the director with months of now unusable film.

“When I returned to Germany to try and hold all the investors in the film together they asked me ‘How can you continue?’” Herzog would recall. “Do you have the strength and the will and the enthusiasm?’ And I said, ‘How can you ask this question? If I abandon this project I will be a man without dreams and I do not want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project!”

He can scarcely have imagined how literally those words would come to haunt him. In the months that lay ahead his cast, crew and a 1000-strong crowd of extras would encounter inter-tribal warfare, a drowning, two plane crashes and threats of murder. But for now it was casting problems that bit hardest. The loss of Robards in turn forced the departure of one Mick Jagger, now unable to reprise his remarkable early performance as Fitzcarraldo’s “retarded actor sidekick” due to an impending world tour with the Rolling Stones.

“Losing Mick was, I think, the biggest loss I have ever experienced as a film director,” claimed Herzog in an interview as recently as 2001, explaining his decision to write the character out of the script rather than recast. “I liked him so much as a performer that any replacement would have been an embarrassment.”

But who would play Fitzcarraldo? The character so closely mirrored the ego and ambition of the director that for a time Herzog himself considered stepping in. Thinly based on Jose Fermin Fitcarrald, a Victorian rubber baron with a private army of 5,000 men and a territory the size of Belgium, he was in one sense “just another ugly businessman”. But Herzog’s interest had been sparked by a chance detail that he had once dismantled a boat, carried it overland from one river to the next and reassembled it to continue his exploration.

“Suddenly I had my story, not a story about rubber, but one of grand opera in the jungle with these elements of Sisyphus,” he explained in the book Herzog on Herzog (2002). His Fitcarraldo would be more bohemian than businessman, bent on funding an opera house in the jungle by exploiting otherwise unreachable rubber plantations. To add to the spectacle, his 340-ton steamship would be dragged over a hill in once piece – an almost impossible task for both protagonist and director alike. “This is a film that challenges the most basic laws of nature,” explained Herzog, proudly refusing to resort to scale models or special effects. “Boats just are not meant to fly over mountains. Fitzcarraldo’s story is the victory of the weightlessness of dreams over the heaviness of reality.”


Wandering the heat-thickened backstreets of Iquitos, one can only imagine the local response to the filmmaker as he explained his mad fantasy. Accessible only by river or air, with unbroken rainforest stretching 600 km in all directions, this outpost of 400,000 people is not renowned for German levels of efficiency.

Yet in other respects the former rubber boomtown must have been the perfect starting point for a post-colonial eccentric. Motor rickshaws endlessly circle the central plaza, where a remarkable iron house designed by Gustav Eiffel was brought in by boat and assembled piece. Down at the sleazy brown water’s edge, river taxis and the occasional drugs mule tout for passages to Colombia.

“This whole city is really just one big movie set,” says Paul Wright, an amiable Californian entrepreneur who helped Herzog and his crew on their arrival. We’re picking our way through a waterside market, where barefoot women sell the freshly-chopped limbs of caiman from fly-blown market stalls, and men launch precarious fishing boats from shacks built on stilts above the water. “This district hasn’t changed at all since Victorian times. It’s still on stilts, still poor and dirty as can be.”

Herzog, surveying the same down-at-heel Amazonian Venice from his office on the far side of a swamp, pictured his hero listening to opera on his gramophone in a stilt house peopled by inquisitive Indian children and a pig. Meanwhile he commissioned not one but two full-sized steamboats in the knowledge that at least one would be sacrificed to the arduous filming process that lay ahead.

Wright, who runs his own Amazon steamboats for tourists, frequently bumped into the cast and crew in a local German-run restaurant, and warmed to Herzog enough to loan him his chief engineer for the duration of filming. “He seemed a good guy, very approachable, not like a lot of directors,” he recalls. “Most of his extras were locals. The owner of the restaurant ended up playing the steamboat captain, and the mad ship’s cook was just the guy from down the road, being himself.”

Iquitos was perfect for the establishing scenes of the drama – a farewell to Fitzcarraldo’s brothel-owning lover (played by Italian actress Claudia Cardinale) and the grand departure of the boat he named after her. Some wondered if Herzog could not have made things easier by shooting the whole film there. Unfortunately, it lacked one crucial component.

“You’ve got to go a long way from Iquitos to find a hill,” explains Wright. With elevation barely topping ten feet for hundreds of miles, and the added requirement of two rivers running close enough to drag a boat between them, the nearest suitable location was 2300 miles upstream, in thick rainforest.

It was a location that would have taxed even the most saintly of actors, plagued by mosquitoes and reliant on light aircraft for supplies. But Herzog upped the ante by ruling himself out as leading man in favour of a thespian firebrand whose genius bordered on insanity. Klaus Kinski had once shared a flat with Herzog, memorably living stark naked in an attic room carpeted with dead leaves; since then he had a reputation for on-screen intensity and frequent tantrums. Herzog had initially ruled him out as Fitzcarraldo on the basis that he would go “totally bonkers” if trapped in the Amazon for any length of time. It proved a canny prediction.

“Every gray hair on my head I call Kinski,” said Herzog, who had famously drawn a gun and threatened to shoot his lead actor if he walked off set during their previous jungle collaboration on Aguirre: The Wrath of God. “Klaus was one of the greatest film actors of the century, but he was also a monster and a great pestilence… Together we were like two critical masses which created a dangerous mixture whenever they came into contact with each other.”

Arriving on the same plane as Kinski for this intriguing chemistry experiment was Les Blank, a US documentary maker who had obtained permission from Herzog to record the filming process. “I knew if I could make it back in one piece I’d have some great material,” recalls Blank, who would later win the British Academy award for the resulting Burden of Dreams. “But in some ways I’m amazed I came out of it alive.”

Initially content to wander around the camp in his Yves Saint Laurent combat fatigues exclaiming on the “eroticism” of the jungle, the German actor quickly grew restless, with often spectacular results. “It was like working with this wild animal,” says Blank, who witnessed Kinski physically attacking one of Herzog’s deputies. “Only Herzog seemed able to deal with him – he had a way of talking him down, like a horse whisperer.”

For hundreds of native Indian extras already wary at being asked to help drag Herzog’s steamboat up a muddy slope, the daily outbursts of the raving white man were incomprehensible and terrifying. At one point a local chief approached the director and offered to have Kinski killed.

Tempting as the offer must have been, Herzog and his team were facing more serious external foes. In one of the region’s driest summers on record, scavenging Amahuaca tribespeople launched a scavenging hit-and-run raid on the film camp. One man was lucky to survive an arrow through his throat, while his wife was hit in the stomach, necessitating eight hours of emergency surgery on a kitchen table.

“I assisted by illuminating her abdominal cavity with a torchlight,” recalled Herzog, “and with my other hand sprayed with repellent the clouds of mosquitoes that swarmed around the blood.”

Filming halted while a crowd of furious extras gathered for a revenge attack. Incredibly, Herzog suggested Blank might like to tag along. “I was terrified,” recalls the mild-mannered American. “But I didn’t want him to know what a coward I was, so I said I would go if he would go.” Thankfully, Herzog thought better of the idea by the following morning. “He thought it wouldn’t play very well in the international press.”

The attack was only one of a catalogue of disasters, including two plane crashes – in which five people were critically injured, one paralysed – and the death of a young highland Indian who drowned after borrowing a canoe without permission. Among more than a thousand extras, a few perished from disease – though arguably not as many as might naturally have done so without the presence of the production’s camp doctor. A Peruvian logger bitten by a deadly snake made the dramatic decision to cut off his own foot with a chainsaw to prevent the spread of the venom. And always, as Herzog reeled from one crisis to the next, Kinski would throw impeccably-timed tantrums to ensure that he remained the centre of attention.

“I shouldn’t make movies any more,” says Herzog in Blank’s Burden of Dreams, clearly exhausted and devastated by the injuries and deaths. “I should go to a lunatic asylum… I feel even if I get that boat over the mountain, and somehow I finish that film, anyone can congratulate me, but nobody will convince me to be happy about that, not until the end of my days.”

Even the boat wasn’t going anywhere fast. Dragged little by little up its muddy slope on an enormous block and tackle with the help of hundreds of extras and an unreliable bulldozer, the iconic steamboat reached its summit only to find that the waters on the other side had receded with the drought. It sat awaiting the next rainy season, an ark-like symbol of cinematic folly, inhabited by a family of five children and two pigs.

Herzog at times seemed close to a breakdown. In Burden of Dreams, he gives the most memorable soliloquy of the entire four-year marathon, upstaging his own protagonist with a Kurtzian cri de coeur. “The trees here are in misery,” he mutters at the steaming foliage. “And the birds are in misery – I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain… So we are cursed with what we are doing here. It’s a land that God – if he exists – has created in anger…”

Showing an early edit to a trial audience, Les Blank was surprised to find that the reaction was laughter. “I was baffled,” recalls Blank. “I thought it was kind of tragic and sad, but I edited it some more and they still laughed. So after that I played it for the laughter – it’s basically a tragicomedy.”

The tragicomedy verges on farce in the scene where steamship is reverently cut loose into the rapids by the same Indians who have dragged it over the mountain. Filming aboard with Kinski and Herzog in a final reckless bid for authenticity, Herzog’s three cameramen suffered concussion and broken ribs as the boat plunged into the white water and hit a rockface. The particularly unfortunate Thomas Mauch – already missing part of his toe after a piranha attack – now had his hand split open in the collision. With no anaesthetic supplies left after the arrow attack, Herzog recalls how one of the camp’s resident prostitutes (recruited, apparently, at the suggestion of a pragmatic Catholic priest to prevent unrest among the loggers) helped muffle Mauch’s screams during the operation by “burying his face between her breasts and telling him how much she loved him.”


Twenty five years later, the old steamship still sits rusting in Iquitos, its prow still bent over by the impact of that final collision. On the waterfront promenade the Fitzcarraldo bar and restaurant displays the masthead and assorted posters and stills on its wall, though few locals can tell you much about them.

“Most people round here haven’t actually seen the film,” explains Paul Wright, munching cheerfully on pan-fried caiman. “It’s not really their bag. I’ve seen it, but to be honest I enjoyed the documentary more than the film.”

It’s a not uncommon verdict. While Fitzcarraldo won Herzog a best director award at Cannes on its release in 1982, it was perhaps as much for the Herculean feat of making it as for the beautiful but flawed end-product. Burden of Dreams was meanwhile feted with the British Academy Award for best documentary, and more recently ranked by veteran film journalist Derek Malcolm among the hundred best films of the whole of the 20th century – a list from which Fitzcarraldo is tellingly absent.

Others argue that the two films properly belong together. “I think of them as companion pieces, even parts of the same film in many ways,” says film critic Mark Cousins. “Fitzcarraldo is probably the last film since silent cinema where you’re moved by the effort behind making a picture. It’s the same reason Victorians went to see the Alps – to see the sublime. That’s why you feel like applauding at the end. That’s its significance, not its content as a work of fiction.”

It’s therefore no great surprise that Herzog himself has turned largely to documentary making in recent years. It seems there are enough real-life tragic dreamers – like Timothy Treadwell, ill-fated bear-whisperer and subject of his critically acclaimed Grizzly Man (2005) – without the need to employ actors to bare their teeth.

Klaus Kinski meanwhile died of a heart attack in 1991 after alienating almost everybody he knew. A solitary son attended his funeral, while Herzog –estranged from his ranting alter ego after filming Cobra Verde in 1987 – produced the affectionate if brutally honest documentary tribute entitled My Best Fiend.

A quarter of a century after their most famous collaboration, in an age when a steamboat scaling a hillside would be a doddle for CGI post-production geeks, Fitzcarraldo seems a grand, prematurely ancient work. “Probably no one will ever need to do again what we did,” says Herzog, looking back on his most famous and difficult film. “I am a Conquistador of the Useless.”

See www.wernerherzog.com or www.lesblank.com

Published in Sunday Herald Magazine 13th May 2007

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