PRODUCTION JOURNAL: Werner Herzog on Fitzcarraldo

Fitzcarraldo is a 1982 film written and directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski as the title character. It portrays would-be rubber baron Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, an Irishman known as Fitzcarraldo in Peru, who has to pull a steamship over a steep hill in order to access a rich rubber territory. The film is derived from the real-life story of Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald.

The story was inspired by the real life Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald; in the 1890s, Fitzcarrald did bring a steamship across an isthmus from one river into another, but it weighed only 30 tons (rather than over 300), and was carried over in pieces to be reassembled at its destination.

In his autobiographical film Portrait Werner Herzog, Herzog has stated that the film's spectacular production was partly inspired by the engineering feats of ancient standing stones. The film production was an incredible ordeal, and famously involved moving a 320-ton steamship over a hill without the use of special effects. Herzog believed that no one had ever performed a similar feat in history, and likely never will again, calling himself "Conquistador of the Useless". Three similar-looking ships were bought for the production and used in different scenes and locations, including scenes that were shot aboard the ship while it crashed through rapids, injuring three of the six people involved in the filming.

Casting of the film was also quite difficult. Jason Robards was originally cast in the title role, but he became ill with dysentery during early filming and, after leaving for treatment, was forbidden by his doctors to return. Herzog then considered casting Jack Nicholson, and even playing Fitzcarraldo himself, before Klaus Kinski accepted the role. By that point, forty percent of shooting with Robards was complete, and for continuity Herzog was forced to begin a total reshoot with Kinski. Mick Jagger was originally cast as Fitzcarraldo's assistant Wilbur, but due to the delays his shooting schedule expired and he departed to tour with the Rolling Stones. Herzog dropped Jagger's character from the script altogether and reshot the film from the beginning.

Klaus Kinski himself was a major source of tension, as he fought virulently with Herzog and other members of the crew; a scene from the documentary My Best Fiend depicts Kinski raging at production manager Walter Saxer over trivial matters, such as the quality of the food. Herzog notes that the native extras, contrary to Kinski's feeling of closeness to them, were greatly upset by his shows of anger. In My Best Fiend, Herzog says that one of the native chiefs offered, in all seriousness, to murder Kinski for him, but that he declined because he needed Kinski to complete filming. In one scene, when the crew is eating dinner while surrounded by the natives, the clamor the chief incites over Fitzcarraldo was, according to Herzog, his exploiting their hate of Kinski.

Locations used for the film include: Manaus, Brazil; Iquitos, Peru; Pongo de Mainique, Peru; an isthmus between the Urubamba and the Camisea Rivers, Peru at -11.737294,-72.934542
~ wikipedia

From the journals of Werner Herzog during the shooting of Fitzcarraldo

Camisea, 15 April 1981

Hunters had gone out and brought back rodents the size of guinea pigs, which the women roasted on a wooden spit, fur and all.  They looked like rats but were tasty.  During shooting yesterday, the Campas were distracted, shooting with arrows at something on the slope.  I ran over and saw that they had shot a snake.  It was pinned to the ground by several arrows, which it snapped at.  We quickly filmed the scene, and once the poisonous animal had been killed we went back to work.

Iquitos, 13 May 1981

On the flight from Camisea to Pucallpa I saw in the west, toward the mountains, dramatic cloud formations such as I have never seen before.  In the jungle great loops of rivers glittered like gold, and in the sky all the doomsday mythologies were playing themselves out.  In a few spots it was raining, causing double rainbows to form.  The sky flared up across its entire expanse, and in the clouds battles were raging, with lighting darting towards the earth like swords.  The edges of the most distant clouds glowed like angry, seething ore, with black mountain ranges welling up around them, and above them red cloud banks glowed bloodily.  Stormy, glowing, primeval lights passed over the forest, drawing veils of dark and orange-yellow rain with them.  Everything was being transformed ceaselessly into ever-increasing ecstasy, and the horizon lit up in a pulsing madness of beauty.  As night fell, it drew everything down with it.  The last revolt against the darkness was fearsome and bloody and grisly; far, far off in the distance the cloud mountains writhed as if suffering cramps.  The last sun poked its fingers into wounded, bleeding towers of clouds.  Then, all of a sudden, everything was extinguished.  In the darkness lightning flickered without pause.  I had almost stopped breathing, and knew that I had seen what hardly any human being had ever witnessed.

Camisea, 6 June 1981

At night I am even lonelier than during the day.   I listened intently to the silence, pierced by the cries of tormented insects and tormented animals.  Even the motors of our boats have something tormented about them.  

The first attempt to tow the ship did not go well, but at least we filmed the failure.  After a few meters, the ship tipped and got hung up, and I heard the mighty steel cables in the block and tackle creak strangely and make unhealthy  sounds.  Finally one cable, as thick as a man's arm, snapped, having heated up internally from the strain.  It lay smoking on the ground.  At the point of breakage, I could see that the inner strands were glowing bright red.  The ship gently slid backward, and it looked good, even if that does not help us much.  The main actors in our disturbing drama, surrounded by the indifferent jungle as our audience, are no longer human beings but the steel cables, the Caterpillar, the winches, the tree trunks, the mud, the river, the rain, the landslides.

Camisea, 7 June 1981

Heavy downpours caused the river to rise so much that it lifted the ship, and the tree trunks we had slid underneath it were in danger of being washed away.  Thick clumps of debris have washed up around the ship, decaying caña brava stalks, brush, leaves, branches.  A landslide occurred between the two most uppermost turnstiles on the slope.  I saw no reason to get upset, we went back to my hut and let the raging rage, though I knew that all it would take to break me was a few more of these gasping absurdities with which nature lashes out at me in my weakened state.  But I refuse to bend as long as I am not bent.  I had missed the blows on an empty pot that summoned us to lunch, and Mauch [the cinematographer] stopped by, after he had eaten his fill, and asked me whether I thought being a martyr would stop the rain.  That was not my intention at all, and I found some food keeping warm on the stove and the huge thigh bone of a bull, still full of marrow.  After that I fell asleep, worn out for no particular reason, and upon waking discovered that the malevolent weather outside had worn itself out as well.  I wondered whether by sleeping I had averted misfortune.  In the face of the obscene, explicit malice of the jungle, which lacks only dinosaurs as punctuation, I feel like a half-finished, poorly expressed sentence in a cheap novel.  While hauling away a mud-smeared, uncooperative steel cable, one of the Indians farted from the effort with such force and duration that it sounded amid the roaring vulgarity of nature like the first indication of a human will to impose order.  In my imagination my wishes carry me away to a place where people fly over over church towers, church towers over cropland, ships over mountains, and continents over oceans.

Camisea, 4 November 1981

We had chosen two camera positions: Mauch with a handheld; Klausmann very close to the ship, squeezed into a corner of a little spit of land from which the only escape route was straight into the water.  But his position remained risky, because once the ship really started to move it could conceivably tear down the earth berm and plow him under.  We conferred about this for a long time.  Raimund, the lighting man, and several Campas posted themselves above his perch, ready to pull him up and out of the danger zone.   For myself, I tried to find a somewhat higher lookout, from which I could see both cameras, as well as the position of the bulldozer.  I had visual contact with both Walter and Tercero.  In case something unforeseen happened, I could warn the cameraman below me in time.  In fact the ship did initially veer toward the earthen berm by the camera, and I saw Raimund leap to the other side of the camera to get it out of the way, moving it toward the water, while the Campas held themselves in readiness to rescue Klausmann.  But Tercero managed to get the ship swung back in the other direction. Once half the ship was in the water, it keeled over so breathtakingly to the side, against the current, that it seemed inevitable that the boat would capsize and sink. As if it were tossing and turning in a confused, chaotic fever dream, the ship heaved from one side to the other.  I lost sight of the Caterpillar, which had bravely jammed itself under the tipping boat, so I ran around the ship, out of range of the camera.  As I did so, my bare feet came down on the razor-sharp shards of a broken beer bottle, which the Indians had left lying in the mud after their nocturnal fiesta. I noticed that I wa bleding profusely, and that there were lots of other shards flying around.  Rushing on, I was paying more attention to the broken glass than to the ship, which I assumed was a goner.  By the time I had reached the other side of the ship, the Caterpillar had already stuck its blade with brute strength under the ship's hull, with the result that the railing, which was almost scraping the ground , was crushed with a terrible crunching sound, but the ship, by now almost entirely in the water, righted itself.

I did not even feel my bleeding foot.  The ship meant nothing to me -- it held no more value that some broken old beer bottle in the mud, than any steel cable whipping around itself on the ground.  There was no pain, no joy, no excitement, no relief, no happiness, no sound, not even a deep breath.  All I grasped was a profound uselessness or, to be more precise, I felt I had merely penetrated  deeper into its mysterious realm.  I saw the ship, returned to its element, right itself with a weary sigh.  Today, on Wednesday, the fourth of November, 1981, shortly after twelve noon, we got the ship from the Rio Urubamba.  All that is to be reported is this: I was involved.

~~ The Paris Review, Spring 2009

A short scene of the ship being pulled up the mountain to music by Popul Vuh.


Popular posts from this blog

PRODUCTION TIPS: What is a Loan-Out Company? And Should I Form One?

PRODUCTION JOURNAL: How Tarantino Got Reservoir Dogs Funded and Why It's Worth Knowing People Who Know Celebrities

CASE STUDY: A Look at Some of TV's Most Successful PODs