December 6-12, 2006

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Cult Leader

Jungle Rumble—Herzog vs. Coppola: Bet on 'Fitzcarraldo'

By Steve Palopoli

THERE IS no screen big enough for Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. His five-years-in-the-making 1982 indie is a staggering canvas—only Francis Ford Coppola had balls as big as Herzog in the filmmaking world of the late 1970s. They both went Kurtz, making their mad-genius movie in the jungle. And the end results, 1979's Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo, are both studies of chaos set to the strains of opera. Coppola's film is flashier, but Herzog's is better, because he's able to bring order to the chaos in a way that Coppola couldn't.

Maybe it's a German thing, but Herzog has always demonstrated a seemingly limitless capacity for organization, even in the face of his own oversized artistic ambition. For Grizzly Man, he combed through 100 hours of Timothy Treadwell's home-video footage. In Aguirre, Wrath of God, he took on a tale of 16th-century Spanish conquistadors with a screenplay he'd written in three days, a crew of eight and no storyboards.

In his setup of Fitzcarraldo, he must have seemed to everyone around him to be setting himself up for failure. Why not? That's what the movie is about, after all. Even better, it's about an obsessive man who executes an insane scheme (pulling a 320-ton steamship over a mountain) to realize an insane dream (an opera house in the Amazon). Hmm, who could that represent? Perhaps Herzog himself, an obsessive man who executes an insane scheme (pulling a 320-ton steamship over a mountain) to realize an insane dream (a realistic turn-of-the-century period piece filmed in the remote Amazon with no models or special effects)?

There are other parallels, too. Fitz must take money from a prostitute and bargain with god-awful rubber barons in order to finance his dream. I don't know what exactly Herzog had to go through to get his money, but I do know he had to talk all his financiers out of deserting him when Mick Jagger, originally cast as a sidekick to Fitzcarraldo, pulled out of the film. Also, there's the title character's unnerving relations with the native tribespeople. He exploits their labor by pretending he is the White God worshipped in their culture. It turns out to be his downfall. Herzog was far more sensitive to the indigenous people he worked with; he paid twice the going wage (still not a lot) and treated them as artists acting in his film rather than background environment to be "captured" in the typical ethnographic European mentality. However, Herzog is as much the colonialist as his title character. Fitz brings his most beloved art form to the Amazon, and opera is seen here both as the ultimate form of artistic imperialism and as something beautiful. Likewise, Herzog brought his chosen art form to the jungle, and his filmmaking was an invasion of sorts—but it also produced something for the ages. Everything may be huge in this movie, but nothing is simple.

And perhaps nothing about Fitzcarraldo is bigger or more complex than its lead actor, Klaus Kinski. There isn't anything I can say about the man that isn't conveyed far better in Herzog's own documentary My Best Fiend. But let's set aside his off-screen behavior for a moment and consider his performance. There is nothing like it in movie history. The images most seared into my memory from this film are of Kinski drinking alcohol—only the bare minimum of it actually goes into his mouth, the rest of it splashes all over his face and onto his clothes. With his burning eyes and haunted looks, he's a demon and a dreamer at the same time. He attacks the industrialists at the party like Jesus going after the moneychangers in the temple, but beams with a childlike innocence when explaining his dream or basking in the singing of opera's greatest tenor, Enrico Caruso. Without Kinski's dangerous presence, Fitzcarraldo might be a slow film. With him as the star, it feels unpredictable and exciting even in its quietest moments.

Herzog's other casting choices provide some insight into what he was getting at. Originally, Jason Robards was cast as Fitzcarraldo (he had to drop out for health reasons), and Claudia Cardinale plays his wife. Both starred in Sergio Leone's crowning achievement Once Upon a Time in the West, a film that must have been hugely influential to Herzog in the way it turned an extreme wilderness into a gigantic symbolic landscape.

Just as Apocalypse Now is illuminated by its companion documentary, Hearts of Darkness, so must one see Les Blank's 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams to better understand what Herzog went through to get this movie made. In it, the director reflects on the seemingly impossible feat he's undertaken: "If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams, and I don't want to live like that."

You can imagine Fitzcarraldo saying the same thing.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite jungle film here.

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