Fitzcarraldo: Conquistador of the Useless

Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: Werner Herzog
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale
Music by: Popol Vuh

Fitzcarraldo is a movie about a guy who drags a boat up a hill.

Brian Sweeney "Fitzcarraldo" Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski, who's supposed to be playing an Irishman but has a very obvious German accent) loves Italian opera more than I love Italian cuisine. He's so obsessed with opera that he endeavors to build an opera house in the jungles of early-20th century Iquitos, Peru. This isn't quite as easy as it sounds, however; turns out opera houses are expensive (I read that in a book somewhere). It's early 20th-century Peru, there are limited ways to make money - bitcoin hasn't been invented yet - so he decides to get involved in the burgeoning rubber trade. Rubber barons of that time were absurdly rich, essentially the content creators of their era, and Fitzcarraldo is particularly impressed with the wealth of one Don Aquilino, played jovially by José Lewgoy (his voice is simply marvelous). Aquilino is reluctant to give Fitzcarraldo any money, however, noting the latter's well-known failure to finish the Trans-Andean railways (in a particularly telling scene, the rubber baron is more apt to feed his money to his fish than to finance any of Fitzcarraldo's ventures). Accompanying the opera lover is Molly (played by Claudia Cardinale, one of the most beautiful women and most talent actresses who ever lived), his paramour and financier of the boat he will use to transport all that rubber he finds in the jungle. How someone who looks like Kinski landed someone who looks like Cardinale remains unexplained, much to the chagrin of this reviewer.

Here's the plan: most of the jungles of Peru have already been claimed by local rubber barons, so Fitzcarraldo can't legally access them. The only unclaimed area is the borderline inaccessible area on the Ucayali River, which despite being a major tributary of the Amazon River, is blocked off by a number of rapids. It's awful darned close to the Pachitea River, which is a nearby Amazon Tributary. If a particularly clever were able to bridge the gap between the Pachitea and Ucayali Rivers, he'd stand to make a bundle on the rubber found in the unclaimed parcel, which can then be sold at Atlantic ports. I know this whole thing might be a little bit confusing owing to the requisite knowledge of and familiarity with Peruvian potamology, so I've done my best to include a helpful diagram below:

This is the best I could do. You're going to have to use your imagination.

This seems like a pretty good plan, but the bear trap on this Sunday afternoon stroll is the bit about the Pachitea and Ucayali Rivers being "close" rather than "actually intersecting". The reality is the rivers are a couple hundred meters away from each other, at least according to the somewhat inaccurate map he receives of the area. Nevertheless, "it's only the dreamers who ever move mountains," so Fitzcarraldo gets a cook, a captain, an engine man, and a crew, and sets out to gather up as much rubber as possible - while also finding something to do about that gap between the two rivers somehow. The entire crew (save the cook, captain, and engine man) abandon ship when they find out what Fitzcarraldo's boneheaded plan is; this proves to be less of a setback than anticipated, as he's able to cajole a number of the natives of the jungle into helping him with his increasingly ludicrous plan.

Fitzcarraldo happens upon the shortest possible distance between the two rivers and realizes it's, as I said before, only a couple hundred meters. That's great! Vocabulary quiz time: do you folks know what portage is? Portage is a word every father should teach his son; my brother and I learned it at the ages of 6 and 8, respectively. Portage is basically when you get sick and tired of riding your boat in the water and you carry it on land to another water source. Portage absolutely sucks and I would sooner recommend running a rototiller across your shins than every using a boat on anything other than its intended transport medium. Unfortunately, Fitzcarraldo has to do just that with his boat. But hey, how hard could it possibly be? It's just one lousy boat and one lousy hill.


That steamship you're looking at is three stories tall and weighs 320 tons. That hill is at a 40° angle. That fellow in the white suit is 5'8". This is going to be a lot more difficult than he planned, even with the manpower of as many native Peruvians as Werner Herzog could shamelessly exploit.

I think I'll stop the plot summary there, because the effort to transport the steamship from one tributary to the other is the main thrust of Fitzcarraldo. One can describe the entire movie with the picture I inserted above, and it's all anyone talks about. There's a couple good reasons for that.

The first reason this is so critical is because of the artistic/allegorical implications. Fitzcarraldo wants to get rich, as so many of us do, but it's not in pursuit of living comfortably or wielding power over his fellow man; it's about building the most important passion in his life. It's not just for him, it's for the world: this opera house of his is for the edification of all of Peru. He believes he is doing a public good. People liked opera back then almost as much as they like reality television today. That's the best comparison I could possibly come up with. I've often said Honey Boo-Boo was the Antonietta Anastasi-Pozzoni of her day.

Now, that being said, he is at least a little selfish, repeatedly calling it "his" opera house, and psychotically pursuing it at the cost of hundreds of thousands of soles, backbreaking labor, and more than a couple human lives. When turned down, he even threatens to shut down the local church until his opera house is built, in what amounts to an animalistic tantrum the likes of which perfectly mirror the disposition of Klaus Kinski himself (more on that later). There are constant quotes throughout the movie that he will do what has never been done, that he will win in the end, that as a dreamer he will (almost literally) move a mountain - he almost sounds like a Disney hero, albeit far more fanatical. We all have goals, and we all think ourselves to be driven individuals, but the truth of the matter is that we as humans get distracted by various things in life - whether out of necessity or temptation or what have you. Fitzcarraldo is different. His obsession is not such that would compel him to physically assemble the opera house brick by brick himself, but it is nonetheless this singular goal that drives him on this adventure. The madness and determination toward just one thing in his life only makes the bittersweet ending that much more effective. The hill represents everything standing in his way, while the boat is largely representative of both his previous failures and the single-minded obsession that might be holding him back as much as it propels him forward.

The other reason the movie where a boat goes up a hill is so impressive is the physical undertaking of the task was just so unbelievable. I'm not talking about the events of the movie, I'm talking about what went on behind the cameras. To truly understand the colossal job that was taken on here, you gotta go back. Way back. Back to when the world was wet and wild.

WAY back. Back to when the earth was in its infancy.

Peru, 1972. Werner Herzog took a tiny cast and crew on rafts down the Huallaga and Nanay Rivers through the Urubamba Valley with a stolen 35mm camera, shooting a movie about a 16th century Spanish conquistador in German on a shoestring budget. The script was written in two-and-a-half days, whereupon someone vomited on several of the pages; the text on these pages has been lost to history and the inside of an inebriated German man's guts. The shoot was plagued by floods, poverty, and general incompetence by all involved. Nevertheless, she persisted it was made. It was critical that it be made. That's why Werner Herzog stole the camera in the first place: he simply had to make films. It was his manifest destiny. German personal property laws weren't going to stand in his way. Aguirre, the Wrath of God, is a cinematic classic, perhaps deserving of its own entry on this blog by a more talented writer. Everyone loves Klaus Kinski's performance, as well as the music and tone, but overall the most fascinating part about it is just that it was made against all the odds. It often seems that some of the movies with the most troubled production make for the best film experiences. There are lots of exceptions (Heaven's Gate, Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter, etc.) but there's about as many that prove my point than don't (Blade Runner, The Evil Dead, Apocalypse Now, The Wizard of Oz, American Graffiti, Singin' in the Rain).

Fitzcarraldo takes the blue ribbon as far as troubled productions go. Before production even started (this was back in December of 1979), natives of the Aguaruna tribe burned down the film set. Thanks a lot, guys. Now you don't get to help pull this really cool steamship up a hill. Jason Robards was initially cast in the lead role and filmed 40% of his scenes, but he fell ill after six weeks and had to drop out. Mick Jagger (why was he even cast?) also had to drop out, owing to scheduling demands with some rock and roll outfit I've never heard of. A plane crash killed four people. Cinematographer Thomas Mauch split his hand open somehow and had to have it surgically repaired in a 2.5 hour session without anesthesia - he screamed and thrashed in agony as one of the camp prostitutes (a Catholic priest seriously advised Herzog to include prostitutes as part of the production crew lest the men go crazy in the jungle) calmed him by pressing his head between her breasts (I don't think this would be that helpful). The Amahuaca tribespeople launched a scavenging hit-and-run raid on the camp, the aftermath of which is too gory for me to detail. One of the loggers had to cut his own foot off with a chainsaw after a deadly snake bit him (Herzog: "It was a good decision - he lived"). The movie had a capable director, but a thoroughly incapable producer. And then there was Klaus Kinski.

"Let's put this dude in our movie."

Much has been made over the years of Klaus Kinski's acting prowess. After unsuccessfully trying to pull a Ted Nugent in an effort to escape a military prison, Kinski tried to get into acting. He made a name for himself over time with his intense portrayals of crazed characters, notably in three of Herzog's films: Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Nosferatu the Vampyre; and Fitzcarraldo. He is largely hailed as an acting giant, gaining much (positive) notoriety for being as intense offscreen as he was onscreen. While this sort of persona seems pretty cool for Jack Nicholson and professional athletes like Johnny "Blood" McNally, I can't agree that it's cool with someone like Kinski. When he wasn't verbally abusing his directors and production crews, he was physically assaulting them. But let's look at a quote from him.

"Man muß den Menschen vor allem nach seinen Lastern beurteilen. Tugenden können vorgetäuscht sein. Laster sind echt."

Translated into the Queen's English, this means:

"One should judge a man mainly from his depravities. Virtues can be faked. Depravities are real."

That's an awfully salient point from Mr. Kinski. I'm very much inclined to agree with him. I won't be judging him by his excellent performances in classic films. No, instead I will judge him by his many depravities, which include sexually abusing his daughters between the ages of 5 and 19. It's one thing to appreciate the work of an accused asshole (I still love Alfred Hitchcock's movies, and I'll watch anything with Tom Cruise in it), but the deification of Klaus Kinski has to stop. He was so bad on the set of Fitzcarraldo that a native chief made a serious offer to have Kinski killed. The below video is a very mild depiction of his typical behavior.

I don't mean to get too in-depth over the numerous difficulties everyone encountered (though I'm not close to enumerating all of them); suffice to say, it was a rough shoot for all parties involved. More to the point, it didn't necessarily have to be. Fitzcarraldo is actually based on a real life rubber baron, Carlos Fitzcarrald, who really did decide to lug his stupid steamship over a hill. The difference, however, was that Fitzcarrald's steamship was just 30 tons (the movie steamship, as stated previously, was 320 tons), and it was disassembled before transportation (to be fair, that would've have looked quite as cool on camera). Werner Herzog truly was the conquistador of the useless.

In the end, the film fills the viewer with a feeling of awe in the face of destiny - or at least I think that's what Herzog is getting at here. There's a lot of redeeming social value here, even if the primary interest of the film in the public's eye is "oh yeah, that movie where a dude drags a boat up a hill." You're never going to see anything like this ever again, especially in today's world of special effects and computer generated imagery. I'm having a difficult time squaring the outcome of this movie with the moral question here; yes, the native tribesmen were arguably exploited, but I'll be damned if they didn't drag that steamship up that hill. I'd prefer not to spoil the ending, but it's not all positive and not all negative. Not everything goes quite the way you expect, but you can still glean a little bit of happiness from what you're presented. I suppose the same can be said of life.

1 comment:

  1. Klaus Kinski's character portrayal was powerful, but learning about his off-screen behavior is disturbing. It's disappointing when someone admired for their talent turns out to have such dark aspects in their personal life. The inclusion of his quote about judging a man by his depravities hits hard. It's a reminder of the complexities behind separating an artist's work from their personal actions.