Thursday, June 2, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Fitzcarraldo (1982)

On Saturday, June 4, at a special start time of 6:01pm, the Phnom Penh Film Club treats itself to Werner Herzog’s *Fitzcarraldo*—a film about a crazed zealot, directed by a fevered madman and starring an unhinged lunatic.

It isn’t known exactly when German director Werner Herzog was shown the story of Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald López, or why, but what is known is the impact that the story had—first on Herzog and thence on basically everyone who’d ever come within a hundred meters of him. In the end a movie would come of it—though by the time it did, few associated in any way would find the whole thing remotely worth what they’d just come through.    

For his part Fitzcarrald himself had lived a lavish if over-leveraged life as a nineteenth-century Brazilian rubber baron. A wily and likable fellow who’d counted for decades on an inheritance, a boom in the rubber industry, and a rich wife, but who ultimately found himself with the benefit of none of the above. 

Believing he had no other choice, Fitzcarrald hatched a bizarre plan to reverse his fading fortunes by staking claim to a hitherto untrammeled expanse of rain forest on the banks of the Urabamba River. The property in question had been considered terra incognito, owing to a slew of lacerating cataracts between the parcel and the nearest city, but Fitzcarrald had studied maps of the area and noticed a narrow isthmus between the Urabamba and the parallel-running Madre de Dios, upstream from the impenetrable rapids. Thus it was that, in 1894, Fiztcarrald took a 30-tonne boat up the parallel tributary, disassembled it, and recruited a legion of indigenous locals to carry the pieces up and over the rise of jungle isthmus and down the other side—whereupon he reassembled them, floated down the Urabamba, and staked the claim. It should have been the moment that made for his ultimate redemption, but alas Fitzcarrald would go on to lose everything in a rubber crash, a gambling spree, a messy divorce and a knife-injury gifted to him by the local mafia. He died a lonely and un-celebrated pauper.  

Most of a century later in the late 1970s, his would-be chronicler, Werner Herzog, had already distinguished himself as a director for whom the term “method” meant “we’ll all be literally lucky to survive this thing.” Already an eminently respected auteur filmmaker going back to his student-film days, Herzog’s early projects had also wrought levels of intentional discomfiture that, today, border on incomprehensible. From his choice of a riverside jungle bivouac with no connection to the outside world (Aguirre The Wrath of God), to abruptly ordering an actor to extract one of his own teeth using a pair of pliers (Stroszek), and with countless other examples, Herzog was by 1979 essentially a walking synonym for comically melodramatic and indulgently risky international productions. As the privations became ever more tangential and ever more harrowing over the years and movies, his favourite lead actor, Klaus Kinski, came to exhibit more and more erratic behaviour from one collaboration to the next—eventually hiring a hit-man in an attempt to kill Herzog while they were together on a set. Clearly this was *not* the director to whom to show the story of a Brazilian nutter who thought he’d save himself by dragging a boat over a hill, but in 1979 this is exactly what happened—with results that may only reasonably be described as ... predictable.

To commence pre-production on the perfect tonal footing, Herzog chose to offend essentially everyone by re-imagining the titular character as a white westerner, ten times less connected to reality than his loose-namesake. The westerner in question would be named “Brian Feeny Fitzgerald,” dubbed “Fitzcarraldo” by locals who couldn’t say his name, and for this version of the story of the claim would serve as a mere stepping stone: His true motive would be the even more far-fetched dream of bringing Enrico Caruso to perform opera in Iquitos, the largest but still arrestingly primitive hub city of the upper Amazon basin. 

Herzog also insisted that his film would feature a 350-tonne boat, rather than a 30-tonne one, and he also confidently built the storyboards, shooting schedule and financing around the presumption that his boat really *would* be dragged over an isthmus somewhere in the upper Amazon rain forest, but *without* first having been disassembled. Surely no one would ever find out that these were needless complications of the original story, and surely the added challenge (and the attendant suffering of cast and crew) would make a more compelling finished cinematic product. What could possibly go wrong.

Almost immediately things began to go wrong. In 1979, Herzog and his team built a camp in the jungle near the Peruvian-Ecuadorian border, despite the fact that the two countries were waging a minor border war in the area at the time. No one had thought to explain the movie-shoot to the indigenous locals, many of whom had been previously warned to stay vigilant for extra-legal settlers dispatched from Lima to tip the balance of the war. When the production was mistaken for the colonizing pioneers, the team was driven from the expensively-built location under threat of lethal violence and the entire compound was subsequently burned. 

In early 1981, with a new bankroll and a new shooting location and schedule, Herzog may have been forgiven for thinking that at least his unintended troubles were behind him—but not long afterward the original lead actor for the film, Jason Robards, became so ill that he was evacuated back to the United States. When Robards was forbidden by the film’s insurers to return, Herzog woke on an idle Tuesday to the knowledge that his film adaptation of Fitzcarraldo was suddenly without its Fitzcarraldo. Not long afterward the star playing Robards’ sidekick, Mick Jagger, also abandoned the project—in his case because The Rolling Stones were about to drop an album and start a worldwide tour. Herzog himself had meanwhile found and purchased a boat but, only after taking possession, found that it couldn’t be steered because its ballast tanks had to be stuffed with empty fuel-oil barrels to keep the damn thing afloat—in consequence of which Herzog accidentally grounded it on a sandbar, where it would stay for a full cycle of the dry- and rainy seasons, essentially pushing back photography by yet another entire year. 

When matters re-convened for the third time and with the fourth round of funding, the film’s replacement for Robards would of course turn out to be the aforementioned Kinski—who hadn’t been told that the logistics of the film’s ambitious visuals were unsorted, and that in consequence he’d be required to stay in yet another primitive jungle camp, on 24-hour call to be available for scene-shoots that never came. Kinski, already at the end of his tether in dealing with Herzog, and grappling mightily to keep his own troubled career righted and productive, soon descended into a frightening emotional instability. His on-set rages became so frequent and so predictably discursive that they would eventually form the backbone of a separate documentary about the tortured relationship between himself and Herzog (entitled, without evident irony, “My Best Fiend”). 

While Kinski wailed on, Herzog secured yet another round of funding and bought two more boats. One of these would serve the sole purpose of being destroyed in a down-river cataract of its own, but not before Herzog had staffed it with his best talent on both sides of the camera, more than one of whom were seriously hurt. Back on dry land the set was raided twice by neighbouring indigenous communities, resulting in savage injuries to a beloved crewman and two other members of his family. A chartered Cessna carrying personnel and vital supplies pitched over on landing, seriously injuring all five occupants—one of whom was paralyzed. Kinski celebrated the news by spending the next four hours chest-deep in the river, screaming incomprehensibly and trying to tear down a filming platform with his bare hands. Two of the men who tried to stop him were hurt badly enough to be evacuated to Iquitos for medical attention. 

In one crucial scene, Kinski’s character was supposed to seal a deal with locals by drinking “masato”—a milk-like alcoholic beverage made by chewing a boiled yuca root and then spitting the masticated results into a dugout canoe where it is left to sit out in the sun as it ferments. Kinski, who was also a raving germophobe (because of course he was), insisted that his own masato bowl would be filled with evaporated milk; Herzog readily agreed, then switched the bowl for one containing real masato at the last moment and filmed Kinski’s reaction. In fairness it makes for a pretty compelling scene, as one might imagine.

At some point in all of this mayhem, the matter of actually pulling the actual boat over the actual hill became the actual problem that nobody involved had actually formed the faintest idea how to address. 

Storyboarded for the original location near Ecuador, the first issue was the utter dissimilarity of the flora and terrain. Crucially, the grade which had been planned for the project was twenty degrees but, upon arriving at the site, it was discovered that the true grade at the new locale was almost twice that. Herzog had secured a second-hand bulldozer for the clearing of a path over the ridge, but the combination of the much steeper slope and the de-synchronized timetable meant that the machine was largely left to spin its treads hopelessly in crotch-deep mud. Spare parts had to be flown in from Miami, through three sets of customs and two language barriers, and when they arrived at all they were very often wrong. 

Looking over the capstan-and-pulley rig that had been devised and just about installed to pull the boat, the studio’s hired engineer took Herzog aside and calmly explained that when the capstan failed, as it surely would do, dozens of underpaid indigenous extras (playing underpaid indigenous rope-pullers) would be thrown from the site with a force sufficient to fling them essentially into near-earth orbit. 

“How many killed if it fails?” Herzog asked him.

“Well, all of them,” replied the engineer. Shortly after which, unsurprisingly, he quit. 

Herzog’s solution was to continue without an engineer. And when a structural failure *did* occur a few days later (mercifully just a massive U-bolt that caused the boat to slide unbidden back down the hill, killing nobody but costing the production weeks of lost effort), Herzog’s only outward reaction was to rewrite the scene in real time in order to still use all the footage. I mean, Jeebus Christmas on a bicycle, not even Sisyphus himself was stupid enough to use a fucking boat. 

To say that the resulting film is an epic masterpiece is neither fair and honest, nor the opposite: it’s just hardly the point. Yes, Fitzcarraldo is an extremely well-made film in the sense of its performance as a work of cinematic entertainment. Yes, Fitzcarraldo is probably the apotheosis of Herzog’s filmography as a brilliant storyteller and auteur. But to watch Fitzcarraldo, at least for those who know what happened, is to experience a palpably unique duality. We sit there, not so much watching, as *knowing*. Once upon a time, a fevered genius made a movie about a fevered genius, with a fevered genius for his star, and everyone just about lived through it. Lucky for us, they came up with a terrific picture in the process. 

I hope everyone will plan to join us this Saturday, at a special start time of 6:01pm, for this incredible triptick through the depths of unshaken principle and toxic inspiration. To watch Fitzcarraldo is to watch an entire team of people having their lives utterly changed, and this alone is more than reason enough to come and share the simple pleasure of knowing that we didn’t have to be there too.

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