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Exploring South America through 'Fitzcarraldo'


Sometimes fact is more extraordinary than fiction, something that is certainly true for the story of Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald, a mad Irishman who attempted to create an opera house in the Amazon. An astonishing story that is difficult to believe, Fitzcarrald and his real-life team 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. 

Attempted in 1894, Fitzcarrald risked dangerous animals, disease, exhaustion and far more in his expedition to dismantle and transport a ship across the mountains of the Amazon jungle. Keen to utilise the untapped land that was rich in rubber, this brand new venture was the key for the manic individual to fund his dream of building an opera house in the jungle town of Iquitos, located in the depths of Peru.

The bizarre yet compelling true story was immortalised in the film Fitzcarraldo, released in 1982 and directed by the ever-eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog. Starring the iconic actor Klaus Kinski in the lead role, the film followed the very same beats of the true story, remarkably including Herzog himself ordering that the ship should be transported across the mountains of Peru just as Carlos Fitzcarrald had in the 19th century. 

Quite predictably, the film was an ordeal to shoot as a result, with the production team having to move an entire 320-ton steamship over a hill. Despite this, Herzog found the whole production quite amusing, chuffed with the idea of himself as the “Conquistador of the Useless” as stated in Herzog on Herzog. To prevent further calamity on set three similar-looking ships were purchased for the production, with these being used in more destructive scenes and even a model being used for the chaotic rapids scene. 

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Dedicated to translating the reality of the story of Carlos Fitzcarrald, director Werner Herzog also filmed in the very same locations that the Irishman traversed to explore Peru, with the crew of Fitzcarraldo travelling to Manaus in Brazil, the town of Iquitos in Peru, as well as the canyon Pongo de Mainique just West of the historical Isthmus of Fitzcarrald site. 

Known at the beginning of the 20th century as ‘Heart of the Amazon’ and ‘City of the Forest’, Manaus is located at the very centre of the world’s largest rainforest. Brazil’s seventh-largest city with a population of 2,219,580, Manaus is an extraordinary human feat of engineering, with the city’s skyscrapers sharing its view with the canopies of the forest’s abundant trees. A crucial centre for scientific research and international sustainability issues in the Amazon region, Manaus is used throughout the film to depict the elegance and vibrancy of the artistic city. 

West of Manaus in Peru lies Iquitos that finds itself equally covered in greenery. This location was used throughout the film as the birthplace of the real-life titular subject Carlos Fitzcarrald, with the start of the film enjoying the sights of the colourful town before it voyaged into the rivers of the Amazon. A small town east of the Andes in Peru, Iquitos grew exponentially in the early 20th century due to the rubber boom of the time. 

Well capturing the variety of the Amazon rainforest, from the hidden cities that thrust from its forests to the muddied rivers which provide the vast lungs of the earth with life, Fitzcarraldo is more than a classic Herzog film, it is an important cultural record of South American travel.