In 2006 during an interview with Mark Kermode for the BBC’s Culture Show, Werner Herzog was famously shot with an air rifle, apparently by a crazed fan – not that surprising perhaps for LA and, if the director’s own words are to be believed, not that surprising for Herzog himself. The occasion of the interview was the release of Grizzly Man, one of Herzog’s more understated ‘documentaries’ and I kept wondering at the time whether the shooting incident might not have been staged to give Grizzly Man some kind of notoriety, the kind of notoriety that attached itself in the early eighties to Fitzcarraldo which is now re-released on DVD, accompanied by Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, a ‘making of’ documentary, to mark its 25th anniversary. For a film-maker like Herzog who has often blurred the boundaries between documentary and feature film it’s perhaps odd to think of someone else turning the lens on his own film-making processes but like Hearts of Darkness which charted the misfortunes of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, there’s clearly a story to tell.
The story of Fitzcarraldo itself is well known. Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, or Fitzcarraldo as he is known by the locals because they can’t pronounce his name, is an opera-loving Irish émigré played by Klaus Kinski. He has tried to make his fortune in South America through various speculative schemes from the building of a trans-Andean railway to the manufacture of ice. Dubbed ‘the conquistador of the useless’ by one prospective financier, his latest project is to build an opera house in the jungle town of Iquitos so that he can bring his favourite opera star, the great Enrico Caruso, to perform. To raise money for the project he decides to embark on one final scheme – the processing of rubber – to which end he has located a vast area of jungle untapped by other speculators because of its geographical inaccessibility and indigenous head-hunting tribes. Only reachable by river (the Rio Ucayali), what lies in the way of immense riches is a series of deadly rapids called the Pongo das Mortes, certain death to any large river-going vessel necessary to transport the rubber back downstream for processing. In an epiphany however, Fitzcarraldo notices on a map that this area can be accessed, and the rapids avoided, by navigating a parallel river, the Rio Pachitea, and there’s a point where the two rivers almost touch. All that’s needed is for the riverboat to be dragged across dry land – a kind of grand-scale portage – from the one river to the other. It is with this journey, from the securing of a loan to buy the riverboat, to the seemingly insurmountable task of pulling its 70 tonnes over a kilometre of dense jungle, that the film largely concerns itself.
It is tempting to see the parallel rivers, which lie at the film’s geographical heart as well as occupying the protagonist’s mental life, as a metaphor for much of what unfolds. When Fitzcarraldo experiences his eureka moment, Herzog has the camera linger for a long time – far too long – on the map showing the near convergence of the Ucayali and the Pachitea. Fitzcarraldo is clearly mesmerized to the extent that he can’t answer simple questions: ‘Have you ever seen a shrunken head’ he is asked, to which he replies; ‘Yes…I mean no…sort of.’ Can you ‘sort of’ see a shrunken head?! Later as they approach their destination, Fitzcarraldo draws the same map for the captain of the riverboat and we as viewers are shown the same configuration again. His fascination I would argue also is also made ours and we are invited to ‘read,’ even over-read, the map too. Like the weird hieroglyphics in another great adventure story, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (have a look at Chapter 23) the lines of the two rivers turn themselves into shapes that are more than what they are supposed to designate. They become for a while the outlines of two faces staring at each other like the face/cup alternative of a gestalt test. Then again the whole configuration turns into a diagram of the female reproductive organs, and the point at which the two rivers converge can be seen as a kind of birth canal. I found myself staring at the map like Fitzcarraldo trying to come up with more ingenious significations – one of the bonuses, or curses, of watching a DVD.
These over-readings of the map can of course be folded back into the film. Although Herzog argues in Burden of Dreams that Fitzcarraldo is not a piece of ethnography (like Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North or even Herzog’s own film about the plight of Australian Aborigines, Where Green Ants Dream) claiming that he’s more interested in the way the native Indians are acting than simply ‘being,’ it does dramatise the convergence of two conflicting cultures in the form of the exploitative, colonising European and the exploited indigenous ‘other.’ The exalted romance of Fitcarraldo’s ‘visions’ of opera in the jungle and the demented portage of a huge riverboat are both individualist and interferist gestures. Neither of these grand projects belongs in their new contexts. Like other river narratives – from Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and even Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – the boat is a figure of hierarchical power and exploitation, both on and off board. The point at which Fitzcarraldo decides to play a recording of Caruso to quell the sounds of beating war drums hidden behind the inscrutable shoreline is a case in point. He sets the gramophone at the front of the boat’s roof with its trumpet sticking out like another ship’s figurehead and the sound of Italian opera cutting through the banks of the river is as violent a gesture as Frederick Forrest’s Wagnerian helicopters in Apocalypse Now. For a minute or two a fusion between the two sound worlds seems possible as drum beat and opera commingle in an awful presaging of world music but it’s the great Caruso who is victorious. The native Indians are charmed and won over by the sounds of the West like the children who are fascinated by the same music earlier in Fitzcarraldo’s house. The native/child connection is of course the oldest one in the book.
Herzog isn’t pressed by the makers of Burden of Dreams on the extent to which Fitzcarraldo reinforces rather than questions colonialist tendencies. The native Indians – or ‘bare asses’ as the ship’s crew crudely calls them – are clearly exploited labour for Fitzcarraldo and the scenes of them clearing the jungle to make way for the boat are at times reminiscent of Sebastiao Salgado’s sublime but shocking photographs of Brazilian miners. Those photographs reveal a scarred and wounded landscape as do the shots in Burden of Dreams of the bulldozer that was necessary to raze the ground for the portage of the boat. I couldn’t help but think of this as a small scale version of the land clearance that was happening at the time on a vast scale across parts of the South American continent in the name of economic progress. But then Herzog has a curious attitude to the land. He thinks of the jungle as a cursed, unfinished landscape. There is harmony, he suggests, but it’s ‘a harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.’ Nature is for him completely alien and he ‘admires’ it against his better judgement. Whilst this is laudable in that it avoids the kind of mawkish anthropomorphism that clogs our TV screens on a daily basis it can also lead to a laissez-faire politics as far as land management is concerned.
The other question Burden of Dreams never explicitly poses is whether we might consider Fitzcarraldo as an avatar of Herzog himself and his vainglorious enterprises a version of Herzog’s own heroic ‘struggle’ to make his film. There’s clearly as much obsession on Herzog’s part in working out the mechanics of dragging the riverboat as there is on Fitzcarraldo’s except that Herzog has also managed to capture the feat on camera! Both are acts of extreme vanity. Burden of Dreams also reveals that Herzog ignored the engineer who warned him of the dangers of using the chosen pulley system with such a heavy payload. The sublime and uncanny sight of the boat making its way up the incline fascinates Herzog to the extent that he holds the diagonal shot, boat filling the frame from corner to corner, for over a minute.
This slippage between Herzog and his own protagonist again brings to mind the convergence of the two rivers as indeed does the relationship between feature and documentary in this twin DVD release. At times it’s an unsettling experience watching Burden of Dreams for the way that it replays or ghosts scenes from Fitzcarraldo. After the boat (incidentally named the Molly Aida in homage to Fitzcarraldo’s beloved mistress and opera – another ‘twin’ if you like) is dragged a little way up the incline it rolls back under its own weight and two native Indians are pulled out from underneath having been crushed to death. We see the same scene in Burden of Dreams shot from a slightly different angle, the bodies pulled out in the same way. One of the bodies lies bloodied and lifeless for longer than is ‘strictly’ necessary and for an awful moment there’s the possibility that a native has actually been killed. When he eventually opens his eyes and leaps to his feet, visibly grinning, it’s almost weirder than if he’d stayed dead.
Unlike Herzog’s however, Fitzcarraldo’s avowed mission eventually fails. Having succeeded in hauling the Molly Aida between the two rivers – and it is, I would argue, a kind of monstrous birth, a violent breach delivery if you like – he and the crew drink themselves into unconsciousness in celebration and in their oblivion the native Indians cut the ropes sending the boat downstream where it overshoots the prospective rubber plantation and crashes through the rapids before listing feebly home. The explanation given by the natives for their behaviour is that it is to appease the angry gods of the Pongo das Mortes and this shows the cultural chasm that exists between native and coloniser. It is of course also a kind of nemesis for Fitzcarraldo’s hubristic act. In a pyrrhic victory however, he sells the Molly Aida and with the proceeds brings a touring European opera troupe to Iquitos. The final shots of the film show them performing on board the boat decked out like a stage set with a beaming Fitzcarraldo sucking on a huge cigar as lord of all he surveys.
Burden of Dreams reminds us that Herzog had finished shooting most of the film with Jason Robards playing the lead role (with Mick Jagger as his sidekick) before amoebic dysentery forced him to pull out. Robards has I think too much gravitas for the part. Kinski is of course the perfect protagonist. There’s a child-like otherworldliness to him that makes him both charming and terrifying but the charm doesn’t allow you to dwell too long on the prospects of the terror. This also sums up Herzog as director. You watch Fitzcarraldo constantly pondering its ambivalent politics but are won over by the sublime imagery which lets Herzog almost get away with murder.