Megalomania permeates Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, and not just the fictional protagonist to whose dream is given the weight, or more accurately burden—it is literally borne, and by humans for whom ignorance of the dream is absolute; if they are to be thereby benefitted, they didn’t ask nor seek to be. Attacks and accidents notwithstanding noone, however, neither crew nor native, was killed during production. A fact that Herzog is proudly aware of and rightly so given the spectacular dangers his filmmaking instigated in a pre-existing “vile and murderous” jungle.
Kinski, Herzog’s eventual choice for the eponymous role is, of course—at least in hindsight—uncannily apt for the title, adept at portraying megalomania both on camera (Herzog’s) and off (Les Blank’s documentary camera on). In fact one might wonder where Kinski ends and Fitzcarraldo begins. But perhaps this facile puzzle takes a more hermeneutic aspect if restated as where Herzog’s Kinski ends and Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo begins.
It must be remembered that with regard to the European crew everything at the key filming location 2,500 Km downriver from the nearest town, deep in the heart of the jungle’s darkness, was under Herzog’s control and, so long as he could maintain some visible form for his dream, the natives were too. The delicate equipoise of a two-camp community—the natives and crew lived together but remained socially segregated; they did not even eat the same food—required Herzog’s tremendous will and vision not to break apart into chaos and, certainly, violence.
Friction among the natives themselves, unused to being housed together in such numbers as was necessary for clearing the uphill path between the Urubamba and Camisea rivers, and pulling the 300 ton river boat overland, escalated when the project ran overtime. Their temporary facilities lacked adequate sanitation and other resources for longer than three months of occupancy. They were, however, well paid for their labor by their own standards, though this was a fraction of the pay given to crew and cast.
Given the adverse conditions, the radical otherness of the two communities co-habitating, and the all but certain, universal bewilderment about what they were doing it all for, not to mention the costly technical setbacks, what stands out as a lacuna of mystery in the midst of a constantly impending catastrophe is Herzog’s composure.
However this is analyzed it is impossible to deny or even to downplay. Herzog appears as a man outwardly in full control, manifestly backing up his rhetoric that he will “live or die” by this project. It is easy to be convinced that he is prepared to go down with his ship, both figuratively and literally. In the depths of the Amazon, among the Europeans, existential fear is what completing this film comes down to. To many of the cast and crew Herzog’s conquest of his own fear must have appeared formidable, even provoking fear in itself, of a preferable variety.
The question is what did Herzog draw upon for emotional health and psychic stability during production of Fitzcarraldo? How much was inborn in the director and tied to his dream of a film, and how much fed by the dynamics of the interactions with the people around him, in particular Kinski?
Or to put it in another way, how much did the film’s successful but highly improbably realization and every single participant’s safe journey home thereafter to live another day rely on Kinski being placed by Herzog at the center of the fiction AND of the jungle reality, over both of which Herzog held supreme control?
To see this problem as an inseparable component of the film’s magnificent authenticity and its mysterious soulfulness whose depth is so painfully alienating, it is necessary to track the escalation of production problems in the face of which Herzog’s persistence at the time may have intimated a suicide mission. With almost 40 years of hindsight it appears more so today.
The “vile and murderous…chaos of fornication” that Herzog sees as the jungle is nevertheless a system he does not hate, but rather “love[s] it against [his] better judgment”. It is the extreme quality that he is drawn to, its pureness from restraint, its unbridled activity in the name of continuity since prehistoric times. Its fidelity to the Absolute Creator compels acceptance, and “humility”, Herzog admits, is the only proper response to the overwhelming misery present there. “Even the birds are in misery. They don’t sing for joy, they screech.”
But—and this is not to be overlooked—he is not a part of it. On this point Herzog distinguishes himself from Kinski. If Herzog is in love with the jungle it is a formal tie, an intellectual love born of curiosity and conscious awareness. It is an autonomous, responsible (accountable) acceptance of its otherness.
Kinski, on the other hand IDENTIFIES with the jungle, with the violent hunger for growth and fornication. He is in love with its substance, its energy, and feels a primitive connection. It is a place he recognizes instinctively as an extension of himself.
This is the schism that forges Fitzcarraldo into the spiritual cohesion Herzog could hardly have envisioned at the outset, unless we believe his initial choice of the American WWII veteran Jason Robarts—nonetheless a fine actor with high-brow theater and film credits—and the jester sidekick Mick Jagger—a charismatic showman but film wild-card—was overseen by artistic cowardice or plain ignorance of his own true goal.
Had Robarts’ dysentery not sabotaged production over one-third of the way through, the extant footage of this abandoned attempt gives sufficient indication of what a superficial orgy of solipsism Fitzcarraldo could have been. A Ballad of Cable Hogue in the Amazon, minus the wit and pathos of Peckinpah’s original.
But conflict with a tribe of aguarana natives at the initial key filming site at the Ecuador-Peru border presented Herzog with a greater dilemma: shoot the entire film in the safe base of Iquitos or find another key site for the boat struggle. Herzog stunned his supporters and colleagues by electing a site thousands of kilometers downriver from Iquitos, interior to the jungle to the tune of 2 weeks by river, 1 day by air. This decision was taken almost simultaneously with his turn to Kinski as Robarts’ replacement.
Concomitantly, the character to be played by Jagger was dropped entirely from a revised script. It is hard to imagine now how this character could ever have had a proper place in Fitzcarraldo.
With only six weeks in which to find a new leading man, and with already four films together under his belt, it is inconceivable that Herzog did not have Kinski at the back of his mind from the first conception. Toughened by failure and hardship—perhaps even brutalized into purity—the froth and frivolity of what he transiently saw garlanding his film gone, so too was his dread of confronting Kinski, veteran of the same war as Robarts (but on the home side). An ex-POW, fellow-German, and the fornicating symbol of Herzog’s own Absolute Creator.
To face Kinski was to face death. The film had to be made in defiance of both, and so it was now, alas, as much a larger burden as it was a simpler one to calculate. A spiritual test. A test of faith.
If Fitzcarraldo was to be an orgy of solipsism then it would be pure and unadorned, an unbridled fallback to recent German fanaticism openly re-created on a lunatic scale, in the name of art, far enough from society’s connections to allow alternative influences to emerge and develop. Individual influences, sub- as well as super-human, be what they may.
Herzog considered his generation of Germans, born during and immediately following WWII, to be “the fatherless generation”. Either direct participation or silence on the subject of the Shoah rendered them less human, a generational lacuna to be skipped over, Other to an unacceptable extent. On account of them, it was necessary to reach back to earlier generations to maintain identity continuity, or face assimilation of the unspeakable atrocities of the Father as one’s own burden to resolve throughout one’s lifetime.
Herzog could come to rest on his grandfather, an archaeologist whose work in Greece he would go on to trace in meticulous detail. He had been able to find something certain and noble in his own past. He didn’t need to face his Father. So he did.
Kinski was guilty of everything: a Wehrmacht soldier, a psychopath, a father of the fatherless generation. A symbol as much as a figure of terror to Herzog, he may have also loved him “against my better judgment”. He at least OUGHT to have. There was a lot in that relationship to work out: if Kinski identified with the jungle, Herzog was to find out for sure how much he identified with Kinski.
By the end of it all, he may have intuited, a remarkable movie was going to be made. Or else either Kinski OR Herzog was going to wind up a Kurtz, the other dead, the natives irrevocably corrupted.
The outlandish fantasy and autocratic will of Fitzcarraldo encompasses both actor and director, as well as the narcissistic antagonisms that flare between these two false images of imperfection each man has to live with on a daily basis over the course of a year.
If one could have read Herzog’s mind it might have thought: “assimilation or death. Either Kinski is the devil or else we both are, in which case we can go no further in a civilized world.”
If the director’s primary concern is extracting an orchestrated performance from his actors, this is particularly so for Herzog. Even his documentary subjects are tutored, their scenes scripted. A vocal opponent to cinéma vérité and its pretensions to objectivity, Herzog admirably admits to the director-camera interference in reality and openly takes charge of this to fashion his unique vision of reality. But what if director and actor understand one another so well that the actor knows better than the director what the latter is really after, something the director in turn knows? And what if that actor then withholds that very performance, or threatens to, or is feared to?
What might ensue is the Dostoyevskian hope for recuperation of what is lost at the expense of finding one’s double, one’s other self. A struggle for annihilation of intimate otherness as the only alternative to a total surrendering into it. A boxing match between father and son, arranged by the son to be staged beyond the Pale. If either loses a history is rewritten. A suicide mission.
But no doubt Herzog owed it to himself, to the fatherless generation he was at the vanguard of, to risk everything for the truth—‘the ecstatic truth’—capturable as art on film. Blameless for the Father’s crimes his sacrifice would be ideal, pure, unnecessary and therefore without guilt. In contrast, guilt would dog him so long as he shunned self-sacrifice, preserved himself from his vocation.
In time, a Fitzcarraldo with Robarts and Jagger would have embarrassed the director who might not have developed the emotional courage, and sensitivity, needed to make later films like Into the Abyss and Grizzly Man.
The question is what kind of a human is he to have been able to achieve what he did, and what is more, to have felt the need to metaphorically re-capitulate his countries recent megalomaniacal history without a single death? A sane human of god-like capacity for confronting the terrors of the unknown, or a creative madman?
Was he insane during filming? If so, how insane? What was the standard of sanity in that filmmaking microcosm during the one-year production period?
Was Herzog, unlike Kinski, and in keeping with the fictional character of Fitzcarraldo himself aware of his own insanity (why else would the will to lead a grandiose expedition into the back of beyond for grandiosity’s sake exist?). Kinski, of course, didn’t lead but followed. To be lead by a madman into his world of madness, and cry foul upon realizing one’s mistake when it is too late to escape characterizes a relational asymmetry that cannot be ignored in the Fitzcarraldo project.
Provided Herzog can maintain his mask of sanity, an outwardly unflappable composure, before the crew and natives—and in particular Kinski—reality may be managed, no danger too big to fear, no fantasy too fantastic to attempt realization. From reality management flows sanity normalization. Under the extraordinary, exceptional living conditions for both the natives and Europeans crude signs would have needed to be observed.
Remember, in this context, that Kinski was significantly older than every other person in he crew, isolated to yet a further degree by age. The easily provoked Kinski was insanity counterpointed by Herzog’s poise and mask of sanity, visible for all to judge, natives included.
When a baited Kinski raved like an animal out of control, how much was Herzog himself performing, playing his calm adversary within another script—the scripted contest between Father and Son, in which the entire population of witnesses were identifiably in support of Herzog, against Kinski.
Herzog mentions that Kinski scared the natives and that, at one point, after one of Kinski’s bouts of rage, they offered to kill him if he so wished. He declined the offer of course. Yet this offer, to Herzog, must have appeared nonetheless fitting. It mirrored his own sentiments. But he needed Kinski because Kinski was Fitzcarraldo and Fitzcarraldo was Herzog (in increasing hierarchy), none of which the natives would have grasped nor, probably, could have cared about if they did.
The director could, however, assure them and be assured in turn that Kinski would not harm anyone. Were the natives ever scared of Herzog? Were the crew? Not so long as a living Kinski was among them. Kinski was probably the only one aware enough to be scared of Herzog, and outbursts of that fear positioned him as the black sheep of the Herzog family.
And yet perhaps Kinski was more justified in his periodic screaming than the collective mass in their passive acceptance of the insanity of the prevailing status quo, and co-operation in the pursuit of one man’s megalomaniacal dream.
George Saitoh‘s essays, fiction, poetry and drama have appeared in Aeqai, Kyoto Journal, Orbis, Clarion, Word Riot, Santa Ana River Review and Janus Head. His plays have been performed in Tokyo and Dublin. He holds a doctorate from the University of York and teaches at Waseda University in Tokyo. He was born in Dublin.
–Background Art by Piotr Kaczmarek