If only because Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo is a better, though flawed, film than Francis Ford Coppola's elephantine pipe dream, Apocalypse Now, the film documenting its arduous creation, Burden of Dreams (1982) is more rewarding than Hearts of Darkness, which chronicled the making of Coppola's film, which was then the most expensive film ever made.
In Les Blank's film, Herzog describes how he came up with the story:
"It's a strange story, a little bit Sisyphus-like . . .The title is derived from an Irish name, Fitzgerald, the leading character's name is Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald. And since nobody could pronounce his name in the Amazon here, he calls himself "Fitzcarraldo" and he also founds a town with the name Fitzcarraldo.There was a historical figure whose name was Carlos Fermin Fitzcarraldo, a caucho baron. I must say, the story of this caucho baron didn't interest me so much. What interested me more was one thing he did, that he crossed an isthmus from one river system into another with a boat. They disassembled the boat and put it together again on the other river. And that intrigued me to write a story about big opera in the jungle and about a man who wants to bring Caruso into Iquitos [Peru] and build a huge opera house."
Originally cast with Jason Robards in the title role and Mick Jagger as a half-demented sidekick, shooting in the Amazon was 40% complete when Robards came down with amoebic dysentery so severe that, under doctor's orders, he had to withdraw from the project. And while Herzog was back in Germany reassuring investors and looking for a replacement for Robards, Jagger himself announced that Rolling Stones commitments made it impossible for him to continue his participation in the project. So Herzog decided to simply eliminate Jagger's character from his script and told his backers, who cannot have found his words very encouraging, "If I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams and I don't want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project."
Is there a good reason why risking more than just one's investors' money and one's reputation in the making of a film - especially a film that exists almost entirely in it exteriors - important? Most viewers, unaware (and uncaring) of Herzog's gargantuan labor, will see only what is presented to their eyes by the finished film. But is it important that Herzog chose not to shoot the film on a quiet, well-explored and accessible tributary of the Amazon? There was one, in fact, near his base cape in Iquitos, Peru. Is it important that he chose to shoot a real ship being hauled up a real mountain, instead of a scale model on a string sliding up an ant hill? Herzog explained that his choice of remote locations would bring something special out of his actors. But does it ultimately matter a damn what his cast and crew went through to get his film finished? Does it make Fitzcarraldo a better film?
Sadly, the answer must be no. Even knowing all of the perils the cast and crew endured cannot improve the work itself, the film we see. But one of the signal glories of film is catching within its frame images of the real. And what could be more real than Herzog's Amazon, fraught with perils that would make Indiana Jones soil his cargo pants? The ecology of the Amazon basin has been threatened with the destructive invasion of settlers and loggers (not to mention missionaries) for many decades. Early in Burden of Dreams, the narrator states matter-of-factly that "The Amazon jungle is disappearing fast. Every month, 8,000 square miles are cut down. At the present rate, by the year 2010 the entire Amazon Basin will be cleared." Mathematical probabilities are sometimes a little mistaken, I suppose. That the Amazon Basin is still relatively intact in 2009, despite the continuing destruction, is something of a wonder in itself. In a burst of his own hyperbole, Herzog boasted that "In this case we will probably have one of the last feature films with authentic natives in it. They are fading away very quickly. And it's a catastrophe and a tragedy that going on and we lose cultures and individualities and languages and mythologies and we'll be stark naked at the end. We'll end up like all the cities in the world now, with skyscrapers and a universal kind of culture like the American culture."
Fans who are acquainted with his ecological work might find some of Herzog's comments, in the middle of the jungle, surprising:
"Of course we are challenging nature itself, and it hits back. Kinski always says it's full of erotic elements. I don't see it so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn't see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course, there's a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing, they just screech in pain. It's an unfinished country, it's still prehistorical. The only thing that is lacking is the dinosaurs here. It's like a curse weighing on an entire landscape. And whoever goes too deep into this has his share of that curse. So we are cursed with what we are doing here. It's a land that God, if He exists has created in anger. It's the only land where creation is unfinished. Taking a close look at what's around us, there is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. And we in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle, we in comparison to that enormous articulation - we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel. We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order. Even the stars up here in the sky look like a mess. There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it, I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment."
One of the impossible tasks Herzog set for himself in the making of the film was the hauling of a ship up a grade so steep that his first engineer only gives him a 30% chance of succeeding. And he warns him of the risk to life and limb. Herzog tells him in Blank's documentary: "The central image of my film is that they haul a ship over what's essentially an impossibly steep hill. If I lose that by using a level terrain, like the Panama Canal, I lose the central metaphor of my film. For this reason, I'd like to take a bit greater risk than what you advise." The engineer quit.
At one point in Blank's film, he deliberately confuses fact with fiction. While filming Kinski as Fitzcarraldo dancing joyously as his ship is being pulled up the mountain, a steel coupling is sheared off and the ship slides all the way back to where it started. Blank intercuts shots of bodies being pulled out of the mud and for a moment it looks like they are dead. But then they open their eyes and smile. Blank was using action from Herzog's film. The mix-up of fantasy and reality was, of course, Herzog's biggest problem. He was becoming Fitzcarraldo. The only difference was that Herzog succeeded in finishing his film, nearly four years after preproduction began. But that success was itself spoiled for Herzog - if we are to believe him - by the human cost: "If I believed in the Devil, I would say the Devil was right here and is still right here. It becomes very questionable because people have lost their lives, people have been in a plane crash and five of them in critical condition, one of them paralyzed. And those are all the costs that you have to pay. It could have hit me, or anyone. And one starts to question the profession itself. Even if I get that boat over the mountain and somehow I finish that film, you can congratulate me and talk me into finding it marvelous. Nobody on this earth will convince me to be happy about all that. Not until the end of my days."