Herzog’s Madness with Method in Brazil’s Amazon Jungle

Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo

There is an old adage your mother may once have taught you about the
neighborhood weirdo – commonly referred to in English Literature as the “village
idiot” – which goes something like this: “poor people are crazy, rich people are

For the purposes of this discussion, though, we should add the following caveat: “local people have good ideas they never seem to act on, while outsiders all have crazy ideas they always act on.”

Remarkably, most times we remember the crazy ideas best – and, equally remarkable, they’re usually the ones that “work out” in the end.

One of many such ideas is the focus of German director, writer and producer Werner Herzog’s fantastic jungle opus Fitzcarraldo (1982). Fantastic, that is, in the dictionary sense of the word, as in “strange,” “freakish,” “odd,” and totally “farfetched.” Webster’s New World Thesaurus even lists “foreign” as a plausible substitute.

We also have “absurd” and “futile,” both synonymous with the writings of French philosopher Albert Camus,* in particular the essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” based on his existential analysis of the tragic Greek figure of the same name, condemned, in the afterlife, to roll a huge rock up a hill, only to see it slide back towards the ground upon reaching the summit.

Yes, all these descriptions are fine and accurate and certainly help to convey the surreal atmosphere that surrounds this mesmerizing adventure flick at times, yet none of them truly suffice as much as the term “madness” does.

Madness in the way the director eschewed special effects for larger-than-life realism in his grueling account of Irish entrepreneur (and resident outsider) Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, transformed by the natives into the more euphemistic sounding “Fitzcarraldo,” and his cockeyed scheme to provide opera to the isolated Peruvian village of Iquitos.

Madness in Herzog’s use of authentic Amazonian locales, despite the inherent difficulties and insurmountable obstacles that shooting in that part of the world entailed for him and his long-suffering cast and crew.

Madness in his insistence on a real 340-ton steam vessel, to be hauled, by real Indians, first up, then down a real mountain slope – never mind the fact that the real Fitzcarraldo, a 19th-century, devil-may-care businessman, had chosen to dismantle his vessel before actually transporting it.

And madness in his employment of unruly screen veteran Klaus Kinski (Aguirre, The Wrath of God, 1972; Nosferatu, The Vampyre, 1978) – the epitome of erratic behavior both on and off the set – in place of the previously announced Jason Robards (who came down with amoebic dysentery only four months into shooting) and rock star Mick Jagger (who left soon after to join a Rolling Stones concert tour). They both got off easy as a result.

That the film was completed at all after having suffered through these and countless other ignominious torments – and went on to become a hallmark of the epic-movie genre as well – is the unlikeliest (and likewise maddest) concept of all.

Still, the sheer thought of bringing grand opera to the tropical forest area was not as improbable as it might first have appeared, even for a work of pure fiction.

Indeed, for all its vaunted inaccessibility and vastness, the Amazon has historically been the site of not one but several elaborately furnished opera houses bankrolled by the rich and powerful rubber barons of the period – the most famous of which, the pink-marbled Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, makes an eerie nocturnal appearance early on in Herzog’s accident-prone production.

Opera à la Carte (and in Your Face)

Relative to this is Fitzcarraldo’s openly mad obsession with the operatic art (shared fully by the movie’s obsessive-minded director), made apparent by his constant playing of scratchy old 78’s on a dilapidated Victrola – a lifesaver, it turns out, for him and his steamboat’s motley crew; and in the fantasy-like opening sequence, a harbinger of greater “eccentricity” to come.

In it, we glimpse the disheveled Irishman, in his trademark white planter’s suit and wide-brimmed hat, alongside his bordello-owner mistress Molly (played by Italian actress Claudia Cardinale), exhausted after a 1200-mile trek down the Amazon River, feverishly paddling away in an open-air motorboat, as he tries to catch what remains of Verdi’s four-act opera Ernani, starring his favorite singer, the fabled Enrico Caruso (voiced by real-life tenor Veriano Luchetti).

At first blocked from crashing the black-tie event by the persistent black doorman (an uncomfortably bedecked Milton Nascimento, in his foreign-picture debut, who was ludicrously dubbed into German by another actor), the mismatched pair nonetheless manages to sweet-talk their way into the auditorium, as the frazzled doorman looks on with a good deal of skepticism if not outright concern for the safety of the patrons ensconced within.

No sooner has the couple taken up its position at the back of the theater, than the lead soprano begins the final trio, with the great Caruso, at one point, extending his hand into the audience in a spontaneous gesture the manic adventurer conveniently mistakes as a sign of his impending good fortune: “He pointed to you,” Molly excitedly tells him.

“Yes,” cries Fitzcarraldo in acknowledgment. “He pointed to me. You see…he means me.” (Of course he does – in his mind’s eye, at any rate.)

With this fortuitous bit of self-justification, our accidental “tourist” hits upon his life’s chief purpose: he vows, then and there, to replicate his thrilling experience in Manaus in his own backwater’s main square, as evidenced by the rollicking scene in which he plants himself atop the local parish, ringing its bells and shouting to the populace below, “This church remains closed until this town has an opera house! I will build my opera house! I want to have my opera!”

This begs the question, then, of whether the belligerent actions of a desperate, turn-of-the-century music buff are, in reality, the ravings of a reckless and misguided lunatic (see Hector Babenco’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord, from 1991, for another view of this issue, this time involving born-again Christian missionaries let loose in the wilds of the Brazilian rainforest).

For non-lovers of the form, however, it can prove exceedingly difficult to grasp, let alone appreciate, where enthusiasm for opera ends and madness begins.

Having myself been a lifelong guild member of the Metropolitan Opera, along with expressing a keen interest in classic films, musical theater, and the plastic and performing arts (with “fan,” in this case, representing the shortened version of the word “fanatic”), I can readily attest to that misconception.

On a more positive note, not since the premiere of French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Beneix’s wickedly creative Diva (1981), with its stylish décor and cinematography, smart-ass urban attitude, and post-Nouvelle Vague production values, has there been a protagonist as enthralled with the lyric art, or as enamored of its infinite possibilities, as the one embodied in Herzog’s pet project Fitzcarraldo.

Even still, such unbridled “passion” (for what it’s worth) can be off-putting to those insensitive to the title character’s needs or to his peculiar brand of exuberance – his modus operandi, if you will.

More to the point, even time spent in jail does not thwart him from his self-appointed task of harvesting latex in a remote region of the Amazon too impractical for rubber-tapping, hence his use of a steamboat over that precipitous incline; then, once on the other side, shipping the raw material out and selling it for a quick profit, thus providing him with enough of a return to build his longed-for opera house.

But where would he find the outlay for such an outrageous endeavor? Fortunately for Fitzcarraldo, aid comes in the aesthetically pleasing shape of the sympathetic Molly, who decides to part with her brothel’s “hard-earned” cash – in a seriocomic episode that has her and her “girls” attempting to fleece the required funds from the all-too accommodating rubber barons – for the sake of her lover’s bold plan.

For her efforts, Fitzcarraldo christens his steamer, the Molly Aida, after her – and well he should, since it was her belief in his questionable abilities that helped finance the dubious venture in the first place – and in deference to his all-consuming interest in opera.

Whistle While You Work

This brings the main section of the story into play, wherein Fitzcarraldo’s doggedly determined vision for making his impossible dream come true – the long and deliberately agonizing climb up the treacherous hill, with a thousand-and-one native extras pulling, tugging and coaxing the huge vessel along – takes on the truly quixotic proportions of an old Cecil B. DeMille spectacle.

“This is a film that challenges the most basic laws of nature,” Herzog explained at the outset. “Boats are just not meant to fly over mountains.”

No, they’re not. Nor were they meant to be hurled down the raging Pongo das Mortes (“Rapids of Death”), either – which is exactly what happens next: loosening the ship from its moorings, the inscrutable tribesmen (called, disparagingly, the “bare-asses” in the movie’s script) offer the Molly Aida up as a symbolic gesture to their river god.

Miraculously, the tempest-tossed steamer, with Fitzcarraldo and his waterlogged crewmates still on board, withstands the rocky onslaught, but with his hopes for bringing opera to his village seemingly shattered by this harrowing experience, in a manner not unlike that of his mythological counterpart Sisyphus and that backsliding rock of his.

Waxing philosophical for the moment, let us turn now to Camus’ musings on the nature of the absurd, for a more discerning look into Sisyphus’ fate and, by implication and association, Fitzcarraldo’s own future:

“From the moment absurdity is recognized, it becomes a passion, the most harrowing of all…[Sisyphus’] passion for life won that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of the earth…Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd. It happens as well that the feeling of the absurd springs from happiness…

“[T]he absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols…There is no sun without the shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says ‘yes’ and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny…but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable…

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile…The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

That last line is especially noteworthy, to be sure, since it should remind attentive viewers of a similar piece of dialog, delivered by sadistic Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) to the brutalized British prisoners of war, in the WWII action-adventure drama The Bridge on the River Kwai: “Be happy in your work,” he grudgingly informs them, as they prepare to take part in the back-breaking building of that fatal span.

Noteworthy, too, is the last line of the picture (“Madness, madness”) uttered by the uncomprehending Major Clipton (James Donald), upon witnessing the destruction of the very same Kwai Bridge that the by-the-book British commander, Colonel Nicholson (Oscar-winner Alec Guinness), had ordered put up to boost his men’s sagging morale.

Ah, the abounding absurdities of life! So where did we leave off, and how does Fitzcarraldo fit into all this?

For one, the two films share many cinematic elements in common, among them impressive location footage and realistic props and sets (a real bridge and train, for instance, in Bridge on the River Kwai); and for another, they’re both one-of-a-kind classics of their respective movie types. Need we say more?

Having His Cake – and Eating It, Too

Though none the worse for wear (one presumes), Fitzcarraldo finally returns to his town’s homeport, but immediately experiences another of those blinding flashes of “inspiration.”

This time, however, it pays off handsomely for him, and for all concerned: he sells the Molly Aida in exchange for sufficient earnings to rent out the entire opera company for a day.

We next see the makeshift ensemble, being floated down the river on small barges, with all the participants therein clothed, in 17th-century English garb, as pilgrims in Vincenzo Bellini’s I Puritani, singing their hearts out in the act-one bel canto number, “A te, o cara” (“To you, my beloved”), accompanied by several more barges replete with the remaining orchestra members. But where is Fitzcarraldo?

There he is, floating right beside the others – smoking an enormously fat cigar, it would seem – as happy and contented in his work, and in his achievement, as was Dr. Seuss’ red-eyed foe, the evil Mr. Grinch, in bringing Christmas back to Whoville.

And speaking of cartoon creations, it all seems so silly, really, when one stops to think about how much consternation our hero has caused for the folks around him, and for something so alien and mundane to the locals as opera. Yet there is (you’ll pardon the expression) method to Fitzcarraldo’s madness: after all, he did do exactly what he set out to do – he brought opera to the town of Iquitos. It’s only his bizarre execution of that incredible feat that left everyone slack-jawed and bewildered, that’s all.

Nevertheless, he showed them, all right. And things did “work out” in the end, though, didn’t they? No longer the brunt of cruel jokes, nor the laughingstock of his community, this “village idiot,” at least, has succeeded in his prime objective, while enjoying the fruits of his labors – as well as his flotilla’s victory display.

We realize now, of course, that he’s not really mad, nor even crazy. He’s just a little bit…well, you know…eccentric.

* Another Frenchman with the surname of Camus – the director Marcel Camus – had himself, in fact, exploited the rich font of Greek myths, specifically the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, by placing it in the context of a Rio de Janeiro Carnival parade and celebration, in the ward-winning Orfeu Negro, or Black Orpheus.

Joe Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York City, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his wife and daughters. In 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. He is a lover of all types of music, especially opera and jazz, as well as an incurable fan of classic and contemporary films. You can email your comments to JosmarLopes@msn.com.


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