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40 years of 'Fitzcarraldo': Werner Herzog's masterpiece

'Fitzcarraldo' - Werner Herzog

Naturalistic, yet seeming to belong to an ethereal new reality, the works of German filmmaker Werner Herzog transcend the limits of celluloid and access a deeper, existential truth to the human condition. Having created some of the finest films of the 20th century, including Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Stroszek and Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog has created a rich filmography that rivals that of the greatest modern filmmakers.

Based on the extraordinary true story of the Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald, a mad Irishman who attempted to create an opera house in the Amazon, his 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, has since become known as one of his most influential films of all time, led on the frontline by his longtime collaborator Klaus Kinski. 

An astonishing story of human endeavour, Herzog’s film tracks the true story of Fitzcarrald and his crew who hauled a disassembled steamboat over the Isthmus of Fitzcarrald, a bridge that connects the routes of Urubamba River and the Madre de Dios River in Peru. The compelling true story was immortalised in Fitzcarraldo, with Herzog dedicated to recreating the extraordinary tale as best he could, ordering that his own ship in the film should be transported up the mountains of Peru just as Carlos Fitzcarrald had done in the 19th century.

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Hauling an entire 320-ton steamship over a Peruvian hill, Herzog proudly called himself the “Conquistador of the Useless” as stated in the book Herzog on Herzog, with his own actions throughout the production of the film closely mirroring the wild ambition of Klaus Kinski’s character. Pursuing art despite the impossible challenges ahead, the making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo is a physical metaphor that embodies the core ideals of the film itself. 

Ambitious in scale and aspiration, Werner Herzog’s experience making Fitzcarraldo is worthy of exploration in and of itself, with Mick Jagger initially cast as the titular character before he was forced to step down from the project due to scheduling issues. This led Herzog to bring in Kinski, an actor notorious for his temper and on-set outbursts who would ultimately bring a key personality to the film, bringing to life a fiery personality in the lead character. 

Displaying constant erratic behaviour throughout the film’s production, battling with Herzog on a constant basis, Kinski became the main aggressor of Fitzcarraldo, in many ways coming to embody the urgent ambition of the character himself. Upsetting the film crew and the native extras that were brought on to help out on the project, one of the chiefs even offered to kill Kinski for Herzog as the filmmaker disclosed in the documentary My Best Fiend.

Politely declining the chief’s offer, this tension boiled over into the filming of Fitzcarraldo itself, leading to one scene in which the ship’s crew is eating dinner surrounded by the natives and there is palpable tension between the chief and the lead character, fueled by real-life hatred for one another. 
Though, in a film that is so doggedly focused on the physical and psychological human cost of the pursuit of art, such on-set chaos surrounding both Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog only works to add to the myth of the film itself.

Much like Aguirre, the Wrath of God that came out a decade prior, Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo is a work of eerie near-supernatural beauty that sucks the audience down into the wondrous chaos of the Amazon and into the wild mind of an insane artist.