One of the biggest names in German film is celebrating his birthday: director, author and occasional actor Werner Herzog. The filmmaker has been in the business for six decades, spanning drama, thrillers, horror and highly informative, but mostly grueling, documentaries. But one film has recently risen far beyond Herzog’s fame thanks to its conflictual, almost insane production history.
This is exactly what is running on free TV on the occasion of Herzog’s 80th birthday: arte is showing the epochal adventure masterpiece “Fitzcarraldo” tonight from 8.15 p.m. Afterwards, from 10.45 p.m., arte will also show Herzog’s documentary “Flucht aus Laos”, which also takes place in the deepest jungle. The documentary is about a Vietnam War veteran from the Black Forest who, under Herzog’s direction, faces his trauma at original locations.
South America at the beginning of the 20th century: Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) is a pompous eccentric for whom failure is not an option. The passionate opera fan wants to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle. However, since he is bankrupt, he seeks support from his girlfriend: brothel owner Molly (Claudia Cardinale). On her advice, the oddball known as “Fitzcarraldo” acquires what appears to be worthless, virtually inaccessible land on which there are rubber trees that could be industrially exploited. To do that, however, Brian must first get there. So he buys an old steamboat that natives have to tow over a mountain by muscle power…
A crazy intention leads to a crazy idea, for the improbable realization of which another crazy idea has to serve – and then it’s also based on real events! This thoroughly abstruse, yet monumental adventure was inspired by the antics of the cocky rubber entrepreneur Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald. Not only did Herzog take artistic liberties, which are not alien to him even in documentaries, he even surpassed the original events in terms of madness in many respects!
Because while Fitzcarrald gave the order to transport his steamboat in parts from A to B, Fitzgerald’s ship, weighing tons, is towed through the jungle in one piece. This applies to the fiction of the film, as well as to a large extent to the reality of the shooting. Herzog saw this as essential both to the visual power and to capturing the exhaustion and madness in the characters’ faces.
This was originally supposed to be starring Jason Robards, a play me the song of death mime, but after six weeks of shooting he fell ill and had to be replaced by Klaus Kinski. This increased both the intensity and the passion of the film – and the madness. After all, at this point in time, Kinski and Herzog already had an established, artistically very fruitful, but also very strained relationship with one another. A powder keg, so to speak. And the jungle shoot was like a torch thrown in there with force.
Be it through clips of behind-the-scenes material, which German and international media use at every opportunity, parodies of it, or parodies of parodies: Klaus Kinski’s outbursts of anger during the shooting of “Fitzcarraldo” are part of German (pop) culture and general cinematic knowledge become. So much so that Kinski’s nagging is now more famous than the film itself.
However, “Fitzcarraldo” deserves to be considered independently of Kinski’s choleric nature. No matter how memorable it is that during a Kinski tantrum, an extra who was also a local tribal chief approached Herzog and offered to just kill Kinski. An offer that Herzog says he almost accepted. Luckily only “almost”. Because despite all parallels to reality: Herzog didn’t just document Kinski’s real grumpiness. A compelling, complex and rousing performance can be experienced in the finished film.
This unfolds a hypnotic effect and grants the title hero vulnerable facets despite all the snorting megalomania. Even more so than through Kinski, “Fitzcarraldo” unfolds its stunning effect through Herzog’s visual storytelling: Pictures weigh a thousand times more than words here. For example, when the natives stare at the title hero at the most varied of moments and the question initially arises as to whether they admire or condemn him. Or in the fabulous, visually stunning moments when the impossible is dared in the deepest jungle.
Ultimately, in Herzog’s hands, bombastic action moments become operatic, tragically oppressive terror – so they maintain their vehement thrill, it just expresses itself unexpectedly. At least by genre standards. It is typical of Herzog, meanwhile, to tickle every element of fear, worry and tragedy out of an astonishing, exciting moment. In “Fitzcarraldo” this rubs beautifully with Kinski’s fearless performance and the touch of surreal mysticism that is inherent in this story. It’s debatable if this is Herzog’s best. But it’s the best duke to step into his world. Or to celebrate them on his birthday.