Herzog is a polarizing figure among moviegoers, or at least among those that know his name. Somewhat beloved online for his strangeness and “memeability” (Herzog quotes, his thoughts on chickens in particular, have a strange kind of cachet online), Grizzly Man (2005) is still probably his best known work despite being nowhere near representative of his oeuvre. He’s bizarre and poetic and his interests span a wide and mysterious canyon. He’s either fascinating or impossibly obtuse, depending on your interpretation.
That said, much of his work fits into two broad categories: documentaries and ... other. The documentaries are more or less straight-forward, at least for Herzog. The subjects cover everything from the death penalty to the Gulf War, each marked by his distinct directorial flair. Meaning you’d never mistake a Herzog documentary for someone else’s; you’d always be able to tell it was his, and not only because of his instantly recognizable voice.
Herzog’s fiction films, though? Well, that’s another story entirely. How on earth does Rescue Dawn (2006) fit in with Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)? Or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) with Stroszek (1977)? It feels impossible to say.
But somehow, out of all the Herzog movies I’ve seen, Fitzcarraldo (1982), a nearly three-hour epic about a man trying to pull a steamboat over a mountain in the Amazonian rainforest, feels the most relatable, the most accessible. And for a movie that accomplished incredible things while telling the story of man desperate to do incredible things, this accessibility feels like the greatest achievement of all.
Klaus Kinski plays Fitzcarraldo (really Brian Fitzgerald, but he let’s the locals call him Fitzcarraldo), a bankrupt businessman in Iquitos, a small town in Peru on the banks of the Amazon. Fitz loves the opera and all he wants in the world is to simply make enough money to open his own opera house in the jungle. He eventually decides the quickest way to do this would be to get a steamboat and navigate a route up the Amazon to the Ucayali River where he’d access an impossible to reach section of rubber trees, a veritable gold mine in the early 1900s when the film is set. So he gets a rag-tag crew and sets out on a grand adventure—all in the name of opera.
Kinski’s prowess is undeniable; his Fitzcarraldo is charming in the most heartwarming way. You can’t help but root for him and his wild dreams. At the same time he seems almost unreal against the setting: bright white suit, tan leathery skin, and a shock of hay-colored hair all against a backdrop of thick, unending jungle.
The setting is similar to Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), but its content couldn’t be more different. In Aguirre, there is violence and death in the jungle and in the hearts of men. Fitzcarraldo finds the absurdity and more importantly, the hope.
And why shouldn’t it? Herzog could not more clearly be a dreamer himself. He describes the way the concept first grabbed hold of him in the prologue to his book, Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo: “A vision had seized hold of me ... It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle ... and I, like a stanza in a poem written in an unknown foreign tongue, am shaken to the core.”
The idea gripped Herzog in the same way the thought of the opera grips Fitzcarraldo. Both director and character exhibit the kind of passion that’s either inspirational or madness. Both hurl themselves into the untameable jungle for the sake of art. Both have an uncanny ability to pull others into their schemes.
In some ways, they even brought me to the very same jungle.
I bought Conquest of the Useless as a gift for the man who’d become my husband back in 2009 for our anniversary. I read it a few years later, and the book brought me to the film, but not before it brought me to Iquitos, which is in many ways still the same backwoods river town Herzog and Fitzcarraldo knew.
Now when I watch Fitzcarraldo, I’m equal parts swept away by the fantastical nature of the story and the power of my own memories. When the sun sets for Fitzcarraldo, I remember the way it set for me, and I can’t think of any other way to experience the film that might please Herzog more.