Why Herzog Differs
One of the oddities of the age is the artist or intellectual who, deferring to the pervasive sanctities of the times, succeeds in misunderstanding his own temperament. There are quite a few of these about in America, but a most spectacular example is the German film-maker Werner Herzog. For, yes, Germany still holds the hearts of cultivated U.S. film lovers in thrall. It certainly holds in thrall the hearts of the director and program committee of the New York Film Festival, who during the recent festival featured two new posthumous Rainer Werner Fassbinders and reserved the most prestigious spot, the gala closing night, for Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.
Four years in the making, the new Herzog film had even more flamboyant production problems than Apocalypse Now by Francis Coppola—a director with whom Herzog, as we shall see, has something in common. So the tom-toms have been beating for Fitzcarraldo for some time. François Truffaut has called Herzog “the greatest film-maker alive today,” and Fitzcarraldo won Herzog the prize for best director at the Cannes Film Festival last spring. Now leading American critics have joined the chorus: “grand,” “noble,” “stunning,” “monumental,” “fascinating,” “beautiful,” “visionary,” a work possessing “majesty,” “exaltation,” “passion”—a “miracle.” Clearly the makers of Fitzcarraldo have succeeded in creating what people in the entertainment business these days call an “event.”
There are not many celebrants of our modern, Western, pluralistic society among the leaders of the New German Cinema, and Herzog is not really one either. But as compared to, say, Fassbinder or Volker Schlöndorff, he is something of an original. If Herzog rejects our modern world—and I rather think he does—it is not in the name of Marxism, Fabianism, collectivism, equalitarianism, economic justice, participatory democracy, or anything of that sort, but of something quite old—very old, indeed. A giveaway detail is that Herzog has had what seems a lifelong obsession with the conquistadors, that strange breed of Spaniard that once upon a time seized most of the New World with a ferocity, voracity, and resolve that are now hard even to comprehend.
Brutal, cruel, treacherous, but also possessed of insane daring and almost limitless endurance, these Spaniards, barely emerged from the Middle Ages, set out on a mission of such grandiosity that even their latter-day English rival, Sir Walter Raleigh, stood in awe of them. Raleigh wrote that they committed all crimes and endured all, “tempest, shipwreck, famine, mutiny, heat, cold, pestilence, all manner of diseases, extreme poverty . . . in search of a golden kingdom.” For the historical novelty of these manic Spaniards was that they were no longer part of a cohesive medieval world, but were essentially freebooters: every man for himself. Moreover, they often came to bad ends. Balboa, having discovered the Pacific, was beheaded for treason. Pizarro, conqueror of the Incas, was hacked to death one Sunday after mass by his own followers.
Of all these “conquerors,” the one whose exploits were the most extraordinary and ruthless (at least in the opinion of Humboldt, the great German naturalist and traveler) was Lope de Aguirre (c. 1510-61). While still a young man, Aguirre walked half the length of Spanish America to avenge an insult, found his man and killed him—the most unusual part of the episode being that Aguirre should have made the voyage barefoot, as if on some kind of religious pilgrimage, as if he wanted to stand avenged not only in the eyes of men, but of God. When his mind later turned to rebellion, it should perhaps not surprise us that Aguirre, whose early education had of course been deeply Christian, took on some of the attributes of Lucifer.
Aguirre, also in his early days, had fought valiantly for the Spanish king in many battles in Peru, in one of which he was severely wounded in the leg, leaving him lame—a trait he had in common with his great contemporary and fellow soldier, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. (Another Spanish soldier, Cervantes, fought the Turks at Lepanto, where he was crippled in the left arm.) But it was when he embarked in 1560 on the greatest Amazon expedition of the 16th or 17th century that Aguirre left his name in history.
Some 370 Spanish soldiers and 2,000 Andean Indians gathered on the west coast of Peru and struck out—as had so may Spaniards before them—in pursuit of El Dorado. This was twice the number of Spaniards who had overthrown the Inca empire, and the new expedition hoped to find another such empire, even richer in gold, farther east. It crossed the Andes, built ships, and set sail on the headwaters of the Amazon. Don Pedro de Ursúa, the expedition’s commander in its first stage, had brought along his beautiful mestizo mistress, Dona Inez, and there were other women in the company, including Aguirre’s young daughter.
Aguirre began the expedition in a subordinate position, but he was to display a genius for exploiting and playing upon men’s passions quite worthy of Shakespeare’s Iago, a character many of whose traits he shared. Other men lusted for women, but not Aguirre. He liked to see other men drink, but did not drink. Almost all Spaniards were ravenous for gold, but even here Aguirre did not join in. Comfort, ease, food, luxury meant nothing to him. From the time he joined the expedition he schemed and maneuvered, first to obtain command himself, and then to turn the force back and conquer Peru. For Aguirre’s ambition was not modest. He would rule this entire New World, this America.
In pursuit of this goal and with the tools of the late Middle Ages, Aguirre crossed and half-recrossed a savage continent—incomparably more threatening than the one braved by Lewis and Clark. His ruthlessness has rarely been surpassed. One of the historical sources for Aguirre’s dark adventure is the strange letter that he himself sent to the king of Spain, declaring himself in rebellion. Aguirre wrote that Ursúa, the first leader of the expedition
was so perverse, vicious, and worthless that we could not bear him. Since it was impossible to suffer his evil deeds, and since you will easily understand, great King and Lord, I will not say more than that we killed him, a death, certainly, very quick. Then we chose a young man of Seville called Don Fernando de Guzman as our king [commander] . . . I was named his maestro del campo [military chief]. Because I would not accept his insults and evil deeds he wished to kill me, but I killed the new king, the captain of his guard, his lieutenant-general, four captains and his majordomo, his chaplain, a woman who participated in the conspiracy against me [Dona Inéz], a knight of the Order of Rhodes, an admiral, two ensigns, and six of their allies, all with the intention of carrying forward this war unto death on account of the cruelties of your ministers to us. I named new captains and a sergeant major. These men [in turn] wanted to kill me, but I killed them first. . . .
Aguirre, although of noble birth himself, gradually killed every other nobleman on the expedition, which, with all the terror and bloodletting, was now making its way down the mighty Amazon, through tribes of headhunters and cannibals, who attacked it with poisoned arrows. Aguirre wrote to the King:
The river is great and terrible. . . . Only God knows how we escaped from those terrible waters. I warn you, O great King, do not send Spanish fleets upon that accursed river, for I swear on the faith of a Christian, King and Lord, that if you were to send one hundred thousand men, not one would escape. All the rumors are false and there is nothing on this river except despair, particularly for Spaniards.
When his ships reached the Atlantic, Aguirre sailed north and took the island of Margarita, off the coast of Venezuela. From there he invaded the mainland with the aim, quite simply, of marching overland across the continent—again through jungle and swamp, over mountain and plateau, fighting cannibals and headhunters—all the way back to Peru. When their horses died of exhaustion, his men divided up the baggage and supplies, and Aguirre, although now over fifty, carried his full share.
Caught by an army still loyal to the king while still in Venezuela, Aguirre was at the end deserted by his men, who had been offered amnesty (not respected). Only one of his captains remained. Asked by Aguirre why he, too, did not flee, the captain said, “I have been your friend in life. I will be your friend in death.” Aguirre’s last thought was for his daughter. “Commend your soul to God,” he said, and killed her so that she might not become “a concubine to villains.”
At the end he stood fast as two of his own men shot him with arquebuses. The first shot only wounded him slightly, at which Aguirre said, “Badly done.” The second one caught him full in the chest, but before pitching forward he said, “This will do.” His head was cut off and his body dismembered in the fashion of the time, the head to be exposed rotting in an iron cage for the edification of the public.
Some 250 years later, according to Humboldt, the Indians of Venezuela still remembered Aguirre’s wild and monstrous rebellion, and believed that his spirit wandered over the land in the form of a fiery vapor, which they called in his day the “Soul of the Tyrant.”
Such was the figure on whose life Werner Herzog’s first successful film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1973), was based. Although the director’s technique, to be truthful, is not quite up to his material, Herzog succeeds in capturing a great deal of the spirit of this fabled rebel. He is greatly aided by Klaus Kinski (as Aguirre), whose ability to project a kind of malevolent intensity might be unmatched by any actor anywhere.
Herzog’s movie follows Aguirre’s expedition over the Andes, through the various plots and counter-plots and massacres, and halfway down the Amazon—where it ends with Aguirre, having killed everyone else, left floating downstream on a raft with monkeys. (As we have seen, the real Aguirre’s end was far more bloody and horrible.) Herzog quite possibly intended the film, among other things, as a symbolic homily against the wickedness of greed, something like John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (based, incidentally, on a novel by B. Traven, another German). But whether or not greed was the real Aguirre’s dominant sin, no one is attracted to his story by his evil alone. Men have been astounded in contemplating Aguirre by the colossal scale of his enterprise, by his fortitude, marching over the Andes and through jungles, building ships to sail the Amazon—by the audacity of his rebellion. Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate, fascinated, like other romantics, by Aguirre, wrote a book about him in 1821 in which he offered as one explanation of the Spaniard’s attraction that “no dramatic fable was ever brought to a more distinct and tragic catastrophe.”
And it was a catastrophe to which no great achievement was attached. Pizarro, Balboa, and Magellan were butchered, but every schoolchild knows what they accomplished. Like a long line of Jacobean villains, Aguirre did evil on a grandiose scale and then disappeared, leaving nothing.
Werner Herzog has devoted himself in film after film to men engaged in somber struggles, desperate undertakings against great odds, but where the struggles—sometimes highly symbolic—are in no obvious way directed toward the public welfare. In reviewing an early Herzog film, Fata Morgana, at the New York Film Festval in 1971, Vincent Canby of the New York Times seemed to complain that the film did not respect the proper “priorities for problems that must be tended to,” giving as the salient part of his own list “war, poverty, [and] racial discrimination.”
And, indeed, for an artist not to have the physical well-being of mankind at the top of his priority list nowadays is a rather distinctive trait. Our society, after all, has as its central goal the provision of ease, comfort, and security. It would wish to provide this with no pain, for as long a time, and to as many people, as possible, ideally over all the earth. This goal seems humane, sensible, and magnanimous (and I am certain I am imbued with its principles myself), but its fundamental doctrine, of course, is hedonism. And I imagine that many members of the leadership class of our society might be somewhat shocked to hear that most of the great figures of the past, the philosophers as well as the commanders, considered a life of this sort contemptible. And I am not referring only to Nietzsche and Napoleon.
Socrates, as he appears in both Plato and Xenophon, lived in poverty and despised worldly goods. His indifference to heat, cold, thirst, and hunger was legendary. Xenophon, one of his students, later to become a great general and command the heroic Greek Ten Thousand in the Persian Expedition, records in the Symposium Socrates’ prodigies of hardihood as a soldier, his ability to go without food, to march with bare feet over ice. For Socrates was no pacifist. His indifference to death, in his words to his judges, reported by Plato in the Apology, are with us yet: “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better, only God knows.”
Epicurus, despite the meaning that has been vulgarly attached to the word “Epicurean,” ate nothing but bread and water and maintained that a man could be happy on the rack. Stoicism had a particular appeal for rulers, and according to Gilbert Murray nearly all the successors of Alexander, and all the principal kings for generations to come, professed themselves Stoics. It is considered almost certain now that Socrates was put to death because of his connection with Athens’s aristocratic party, to which most of his pupils belonged. The association of some form of Stoicism with rulers and ruling classes continued in an uneven line for thousands of years from Alexander the Great to Marcus Aurelius to Dr. Thomas Arnold and the English public-school system.
For if even a casual glance at history reveals that societies devoted to hedonism are submerged rather swiftly by those that are not, it is equally obvious that the infection of a governing class by hedonism is fatal. Our own hedonism, of course, is combined with altruism, and space is found within it for bouts of “exploring the universe” and “unlocking the mysteries of nature.” But the overwhelming emphasis of modern, liberal, “progressive” society has been on the increase and generalization of pleasure—and in recent decades on the equalizing extension of pleasure to those unfortunates who do not have much of it yet. Whether or not this is all ultimately debilitating, someone, eventually, will presumably find out.
Early in World War II, George Orwell, no doubt responding to the mood of the time, reflected that all either capitalism or socialism said to people was, “I offer you a good time,” whereas Hitler had said to his followers, “I offer you struggle, danger, and death.” Orwell might have added “greatness,” but he observed grimly that those who had been promised struggle and danger were proving awesome adversaries. If he had lived long enough Orwell might well have changed his mind on this, but, writing in 1940, he declared emphatically that the creed driving these adversaries forward was “psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.”
The country which was causing Orwell all this soul-searching, of course, was Germany, which, of all the nations of Europe, had for at least a century most stressed the cult of strength, calling, in Bismarck’s phrase, for “men of blood and iron.” The intellectual background of this attitude is rich and unusually dense, and out of it comes Werner Herzog, whose direct spiritual ancestor was a very significant German popular writer, almost unknown in America, by the name of Karl May. A kind of superior Zane Grey, with heavy infusions of Jack London and Rudyard Kipling, May had as his implausible specialty tales of the American West, cowboys and Indians—all hugely popular in Germany during the early years of the 20th century and infused with such German feeling that wits said they were being secretly written by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Orwell, in the same period referred to above, said that a ruling class had to have “a quasi-religious belief in itself, a mystique”; its members “can only maintain their position while they honestly believe that civilization depends on themselves alone.” They must believe in their destiny. Karl May’s heroes, riding the plains of the American West like members of a true Herrenvolk, certainly have this mystique. What Werner Herzog has done is simply transfer May’s fascination with these Aryan Riders of the Purple Sage to the Aryan Conquerors of the Andes and Amazon. When 170 Spaniards conquered the huge Inca empire it would be difficult, given their behavior, to portray them as the lofty bearers of “civilization,” but of their belief in themselves there can be no doubt.
Both before and after Aguirre, Herzog (director, writer, and producer of all his own movies) made a series of films which did not win wide public acclaim: Even Dwarfs Started Small, Fata Morgana, Land of Silence and Darkness, Every Man for Himself and God Against All (The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser), Heart of Glass, Stroszek, Nosferatu (with Kinski as Nosferatu), and Wozzeck (with Kinski as Wozzeck). Almost without exception, these films are about madmen, freaks, or at the very least ghouls or extreme eccentrics, all people far beyond the pale of everyday life. As put very well by the same Vincent Canby, it is as if Herzog “saw in his characters’ certainty of crazy purpose a kind of divine breakthrough, a way of shaking off the sense of mortality that haunts all of the rest of us and makes us small.” And it is when this “certainty of crazy purpose” is combined with extreme grandiosity of aim that we have the full Herzog, as in Fitzcarraldo.
The new film provides Herzog with an occasion to return to his beloved Andes and Amazon, the land where men dream impossible dreams. The scene is some time at the beginning of the present century. The Amazon is teeming with adventurers, fortune seekers, rubber barons, exploiters, tycoons.
Fitzcarraldo, shot in English and post-synchronized in German (because it is a product of the “Bavarian culture,” says Herzog), has a cast which, like the adventurous population of the period, is cosmopolitan. Fitzcarraldo is played by Klaus Kinski (a German of recent Polish extraction, born Claus Nakszynski near Danzig). His character is presumably some kind of South American, but of Irish descent, the uncorrupted family named being “Fitzgerald.” Claudia Cardinale (in real life an Italian raised in French North Africa, bilingual in French and Italian) plays his mistress Molly, a name which seems to suggest an ancestry either American or British. The actor playing the leading rubber baron is an English-speaking Brazilian. Other leading actors are Mexican. The Indians, however, are Amazonian Indians, some of them real Kopfjäger (head-hunters). And this whole primitive back country is caught up in the fever of the great rubber boom, not unlike (it will be noticed) the great gold and silver booms that once exploded throughout the American West.
The film’s opening scene shows the aged Sarah Bernhardt (played by a drag queen) at a boom-town opera house in the middle of the Brazilian jungle, miming the words to Verdi’s Hernani as a professional soprano sings the role from a platform in the orchestra pit. The leading male role is sung by the great Enrico Caruso (unhistorical; he never got closer than Rio de Janeiro). In the audience are Fitzcarraldo and Molly, for Fitzcarraldo’s love of opera is rabid. He is a bankrupt, having ruined himself in an attempt to build a Trans-Andean Railroad, and his one passionate dream now is to build another, grander opera house in another Amazonian boom town, back in Peru, fit to receive Caruso, his idol. Fitzcarraldo, in short, lives for art. His ambitious project will require some capital, of course, and Fitzcarraldo, financed by Molly, who is the madam of the most luxurious bordello in Iquitos, the Peruvian boom town, secures a franchise on a large area of rubber forest, which will be his to exploit. Molly’s money also allows him to buy a large river steamer to transport his rubber. The only problem is that this jungle district lies up an Amazonian tributary beyond the Pongo das Mortes (Rapids of Death), considered unpassable by any large vessel.
Fitzcarraldo and his crew set out nonetheless, his plan, as it is gradually revealed, being to circumvent the Pongo das Mortes by steaming up a different tributary and then reaching his franchised territory by dragging the ship over a mountain from one river to the next. And so Fitzcarraldo steams bravely up the Amazon, with an early gramophone mounted on the bridge of his ship, acoustic trumpet and all, blaring Caruso records at the tropical rain forest.
One of the early poems of Ezra Pound, of all people, ends with these lines:
And I would rather have
Though rose-leaves die of
Than do high deeds in
To pass all men’s
But you will never find Werner Herzog kissing his sweet while there are high deeds to do in Hungary or anyplace else. The crew rebels. Indians attack. There are wonderful shots of the white ship proceeding upstream as drumbeats (actually African) echo between the great green walls of jungle on either side of the river, and other stunning shots of mist rising above the rain forest in the light of dawn.
Perhaps the most beautiful scene in the film is when Fitzcarraldo and his remaining crewmen turn, in the twilight, to see that a flotilla of Indian boats has suddenly appeared astern and giant trees are being toppled to block the river. They are cut off. If they resist they will simply be slaughtered, so they allow the Indians to climb aboard, and Fitzcarraldo and his officers try to swallow food in their mess as a cohort of painted Indians watches them with strange solemnity.
These Indians, we are told, have been crisscrossing the Amazon basin for generations looking for a White God who will lead them beyond the illusions of everyday life to the reality of dreams, to a life without sorrow or death. They rapidly conclude (to my relief) that Fitzcarraldo is no White God, but that his White Ship, on the other hand, is holy. And they agree, with Fitzcarraldo providing pulleys, tackle, and the necessary winches, to drag the ship over the mountain, exactly where Fitzcarraldo wants it dragged. (How could he have known in advance that he would find this available manpower?) The hauling of the ship over the mountain Herzog has called the film’s “central metaphor,” and over the mountain, indeed, it goes.
In the movie’s wild denouement, with the ship safely afloat in the new river, the Indians cut it loose in the middle of the night, and when Fitzcarraldo and his men awaken they find themselves being swiftly drawn into the very rapids they have gone to all this trouble to avoid. (The Indians think the Holy White Ship will pacify the angry spirit of the river, or some such.) Again, there are wonderful shots, this time of the ship running the rapids, but it comes safely through, if somewhat battered.
Fitzcarraldo, however, is bankrupt again as his rubber franchise has run out. He has only enough money, after selling his ship, to hire an opera company, bring it in along the river, and have it perform Bellini’s I Puritani for the town from shipboard. Fitzcarraldo has sworn he would bring opera to Iquitos. He is bankrupt, but he has done it. Molly appears quite delighted at having lost every penny of her investment.
Aside from improbabilities of plotting—which I am inclined to let pass—there are a number of things wrong with this movie. I began to get the feeling that there would be large cloying areas in the film, and that in a very large way it would be unhistorical, when, in a sequence shortly following Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt at the opera, I saw a raffish, bohemian Fitzcarraldo relaxing in his tacky riverside shanty surrounded by small pigs and loving Indian children. Because the Indians love Fitzcarraldo, you see, and he loves them. Even the pigs know a nice person when they see one.
I was next dismayed when I realized that Fitzcarraldo was going to make a habit of consorting with prostitutes, and on their own level, and that Fitzcarraldo, in fact, was in a manner of speaking Madame Molly’s pimp. I was also startled to notice that Molly and her whores were well received in polite Peruvian society, by the respectable wives of the country’s rubber barons, no less. And my feeling turned to dismay again when I observed that Fitzcarraldo quite evidently despised money, which suggested, although Herzog had doubtless read up on his local Amazonian history, that he had not given much study to opera impresarios, who never despise money.
In fact, the whole social setting in Iquitos, before Fitzcarraldo sets out on his epic journey, led me to conclude that Herzog had completely misrepresented both the men who built operas and the men who wrested rubber from the Amazonian jungle, for the rubber barons in Fitzcarraldo are a dissolute, pleasure-loving lot. It is a platitude that the tycoons who built opera houses did not do so for love of music, and it should be equally apparent, to anyone who has read their biographies, that the tycoons who built railroads, say, did not do so for love of pleasure. As Cornelius Vanderbilt lay dying of cancer, his doctor suggested some champagne to lighten his spirits, but a lifetime of frugality had bred habits that were too strong to break and the tough old buccaneer announced grittily that a little “fizz water” would do just as well. And that was Cornelius Vanderbilt.
The fact is that the tycoons who built railroads and steamships and dug mines and made fortunes in copper or rubber or tin were harsh men. They were not sybarites or sensualists. Furthermore, they did not for one flickering instant consider Indians, West Indians, East Indians, blacks, browns, or the “heathen Chinee” their equals. An Amazonian rubber baron (Fitzcarraldo now) would no more have felt at one with his Indians than Cecil Rhodes felt at one with the Africans he sent down into his mines. If one is to admire men of this sort, there is no point admiring them for what they were not.
Herzog has attempted to get around this by creating an opera-loving aspiring baron somewhat in his own image, a bohemian tycoon—a little bit of Ernest Dowson perhaps, a little bit of Baudelaire—as if the fact that Fitzcarraldo was doing it all for art would automatically make him both an equalitarian and a humanitarian. But despots from King Cheops oh down have sent men to their death for art, and Werner Herzog, as we shall see, was willing to send men to their death to make his movie.
Another point: people do not advance major blocks of capital to scruffy, poetic pimps living in flyblown shacks with pigs. And, from what I know of them, whorehouse madams are less given to such bursts of feckless generosity than most. Baudelaire was a great genius, but, atrociously unfair as this may seem, people would not have lent him money to dig the Suez Canal. Instead they lent it to Ferdinand de Lesseps, a scoundrel possibly, later convicted, of misappropriation of funds in Panama. But his linen was impeccable.
All this applies mostly to the film’s opening sequences, when the characters are given their ideological tags. Once the expedition is under way we see a different Fitzcarraldo. Indians are crushed beneath the hull of the ship while it is being hauled over the mountain, but Fitzcarraldo goes on. The hauling must continue! This is not only more in character for a rubber baron, opera baron, or any other kind of baron. It makes a better movie.
Long before I learned of the hell that Herzog went through (and put others through) to make Fitzcarraldo, I was struck by a certain similarity of temperament between Herzog and Francis Coppola. The American director worships the strong, the bold, “those who dare,” the hero, be he military or criminal. In The Godfather Don Corleone (lion-heart) asks, Is he a man? Will he die for what he believes in? The lines were no doubt written by Mario Puzo, but they are the real Coppola—who also, it should be remembered, wrote the excellent screenplay for Patton.
Now the liberal Left has obviously had its strong men, too, determined and resolute, but the raising of strength and force to the level of a cult, particularly when combined with a sense of national or racial destiny, has historically been a defining trait of the Right—often of the anti-democratic Right. The rightist political orientation of criminals is well known. Somewhere along the line, however, someone, or something, probably only the Zeitgeist, got to Coppola and convinced him that all this was very bad and he should be a humane, caring, liberal. The latest result was his recent, absolutely disastrous One From the Heart, whose only merit was that it satisfied Coppola’s love of danger (another trait of the Right, need I recall), since it brought him to the edge of bankruptcy again and forced him to sell the new Hollywood studio he had created amid much hoopla such a short time before.
But the key film of the new, confused Coppola is, of course, Apocalypse Now. The movie contains some absolutely magnificent scenes, among them battle scenes (for, despite all, I hold Coppola to be a director of very considerable gifts), but it was finished in a state of miserable intellectual confusion, with several endings, the director buffeted in turn by Joseph Conrad (author of the original story), screenwriter John Milius (a self-styled “fascist”), Sir James Frazer, Marlon Brando, T. S. Eliot, Ho Chi Minh. . . . During the filming of Apocalypse Now in the Philippine jungle, disaster struck again and again, first a hurricane, then a heart attack which felled Martin Sheen, who plays Captain Willard, the protagonist. And it seems more than a coincidence that of all the major films to have been produced in recent decades, the two on which the gods brought down the most spectacular calamities were made by two men of such a similar, danger-seeking temperament as Francis Coppola and Werner Herzog.
As it happens, a quite wonderful documentary has been done by director Les Blank on the making of Fitzcarraldo, a documentary I recommend enthusiastically to anyone who has any interest at all in the making of films. The Amazon is still filled with the same murderous Indians as at the time of Fitzcarraldo himself. As the production goes forward, men die. Others fall sick. Some turn bitter. Some lose heart. The ship gets stuck on the mountain; it cannot be hauled up. (This is no metaphor; this is literal.) But the valiant crew members struggle onward. Their leader has had a vision! They must go forward! Asked at one of the many points of breakdown if he is going to give up, Herzog shakes his head in determined rejection. If he were to surrender, he says, “I would be a man without dreams.” And the documentary is called The Burden of Dreams. It will not tell you about the routine manufacture of an ordinary Hollywood movie. There is no talk of “dailies,” or “answer prints,” or “negative cost.” But it is the most profoundly illuminating film ever devoted to the personality of a moviemaker. And it is a tale of heroic adventure in its own right. Even its ironies are heroic.
In 1977, Werner Herzog made his first, exploratory expedition into the equatorial jungle of northern Peru to the headwaters of the Amazon, looking for the proper settings for Fitzcarraldo. At this point the film was intended to be his first in English, aimed at a large commercial audience. Jack Nicholson was to play Fitzcarraldo, Mick Jagger a major supporting role. Herzog put all his savings into the project (again, the Coppola style), bought a house in Iquitos to serve as a base, refitted two 300-ton steamships, recruited hundreds of Indians, and built a production camp at his chosen location, deep in the tropical rain forest.
In late 1977, only months before shooting was to start, Mick Jagger was still in, as now was Claudia Cardinale, but Nicholson was out, replaced by Warren Oates. This was the least of Herzog’s troubles. The production camp was Only 25 miles away from the Ecuador border, and Ecuador and Peru, never very friendly, were preparing for another of their border wars. The jungle was filled with Peruvian troops, and it was also filled with Aguaruna Indians, a fierce bunch brimming with resentments. Lima was encouraging new. settlers to increase its hold on the territory, which the Aguarunas did not like at all. What is more, they did not like Herzog’s movie. They were sick and tired of seeing Indians portrayed as primitive savages. They were Peruvians!
Moreover, they bore no love for this Fitzcarraldo. For there had been a real Fitzcarraldo, known in those parts, and the memory he had left behind was dark. The Aguarunas Council claimed that the real Fitzcarraldo had been very wicked to Indians, mistreating them and enslaving them and forcing them to drag ships, and they wanted no part of this movie that made him look like some kind of goody-goody. There were death threats. Whereupon (this seems lunatic, but Herzog swears to it), German leftists appeared on the scene with photographs of Nazi death camps, showing great piles of corpses, and told the Aguarunas that this was what Herzog was planning to do to them; he was going to boil their bodies down into lard. On December 1, 1979, while part of Herzog’s crew was still there, armed Indians surrounded the camp and ordered everyone to leave, and then, the camp empty, burned it to the ground. The remains of Herzog’s crew fled downstream in a canoe, flying the white flag.
Now Amnesty International got into the act, issuing an Urgent Action bulletin when two Indians and a French agronomist were jailed by Peruvian authorities in connection with the incident. Amnesty International asked Herzog to intervene on behalf of the prisoners, and somehow this was construed as meaning that Herzog had demanded their arrest, and soon the world press was running reports that Amnesty International had accused Werner Herzog of violating Indians’ human rights. This made Herzog all bitter and angry. Here he had come with such love in his heart, and it was all being so viciously misunderstood.
A year and several million dollars later, in November 1980, the Fitzcarraldo production camp had been moved 1,500 miles to the south, into another part of the jungle, somewhere near Bolivia this time. Four weeks before the starting date, Warren Oates, blenching at the prospect of three months in the Amazonian jungle, backed out, leaving Fitzcarraldo with no leading man, dead in the water.
But two months later, in January 1981, Herzog was back with Jason Robards. Miraculously, shooting started. Robards, from the footage I have seen, was very good. Mick Jagger was superb. Jagger had braved a Peruvian regional general strike when other star actors had refused to leave their hotel rooms for fear that there would be shooting, as in Nicaragua, confirming my long-held suspicion that some rock stars—despite their reputation—are made of stern stuff.
Soon things were going swingingly. The production was ahead of schedule. After six weeks of shooting some 30 percent of the film was in the can—when Jason Robards came down with a severe case of amoebic dysentery. A story in the New York Times reported that Robards had told friends there were dangerous scenes in the film, with a ship running the rapids, and flights in unsafe aircraft. People had been killed, others injured. Herzog wore a death’s head tattooed on his shoulder and had declared long ago that a film was worth more than human life, and perhaps this made Robards nervous. He was also suffering from bronchitis, fainting spells, loss of appetite, insomnia, and depression.
Once safe in Connecticut, Robards sent word that his doctor had forbidden him under any conditions to return to the set. So Herzog had shot 30 percent of the film for nothing, and would have to start all over again. Mick Jagger had to drop out here as well. He was full of fight. The spirit was willing, and the flesh was willing, but he had major commitments for a new Rolling Stones album and a concert tour. And once again the film was dead in the water. Herzog was so disappointed to lose Jagger that he suppressed his role completely.
Whither Fitzcarraldo? For two months, during which he left much of his crew in the jungle, Herzog searched the highways and byways of the entertainment world for a new leading man, and finally settled on Klaus Kinski, star of his first success, Aguirre, and two of his other major films, Nosferatu and Wozzeck. The relationship between Herzog and Kinski I do not pretend to understand. It seems based to a large extent on screaming fights (referred to by Herzog as “our craziness”), but the two clearly have some kind of modus vivendi. “Making allowance for his fits of rage,” Herzog wrote in a letter, “Kinski is for me a calming influence on this production, because he really gets inside his role with everything he’s got and, even in the toughest situations, never loses sight of the total picture.” I know not what land of dreams these two German madmen come from, but they deliver. The film would have to be converted from an English-language movie to a German-language movie, and Fitzcarraldo would not be an Irishman but someone of Irish descent, but still, Herzog had a picture. And in April 1981, it was once more unto the breach. The jungle camp now had a new name: Peliculo o Muerte, “The Film or Death.”
But they still had this problem of dragging a beautiful, white, 300-ton, triple-deck river steamer up over a mountain. There was a precedent. Back in the early days of the Peruvian rubber boom, the historical Fitzcarraldo, that White Devil, had hauled a ship overland from one river to another, but it had been only a fraction of the size of Herzog’s ship, and he had disassembled it and made his enslaved Indians drag it across in eight sections. Herzog, however, had said many times that what he wanted was the “challenge of the impossible,” and if there was a harder way to do something, he would usually find it. He had gone thousands of miles into the jungle for the atmosphere, which he felt would “bring out” something different in actors and crew, while freely admitting he could have shot the whole film in the vicinity of Iquitos. And now he wanted to see the ship, the whole ship, ascending a mountain in the jungle. He’d had this vision.
A Brazilian engineer flew in to design a system of winches and pulleys and cables, which with swarms of Indians pushing away at capstans would seem to be towing the ship up the hill. They cheated a little, since a D-8 Caterpillar earthmover would also be doing some of the towing, but the engineer guaranteed the system for a 20-degree slope. The trouble was that Herzog did not want a 20-degree slope. He wanted a 40-degree slope, which would be extremely dangerous. Because with the ship and the Indians confined to a narrow trench, if anything gave—with cables flying through the air—an estimated 20 to 30 people would be killed. Herzog argued that, no, only 5 people would be killed, and insisted on 40 degrees. The engineer quit in protest.
Life, meanwhile, was chugging along in its humdrum way. Indians were shooting each other with arrows, dying of this and that. War parties were setting out. Herzog had to import a crew of prostitutes, otherwise his Indians would have started molesting women from neighboring tribes, which could have set off a real war. Two airplanes crashed on takeoff from a jungle airstrip, seriously injuring half-a-dozen people. The Caterpillar earthmover kept breaking down, getting hopelessly mired, falling into ditches. Equatorial rains poured down, the heaviest in twenty-five years. Down on the river the duplicate steamship ran the rapids, crashing into rock canyon walls. The director of photography (Thomas Mauch), with his eye to the camera, got a terrible bloody gash on his forehead, and sat on the deck while Kinski and the others bound his wounds. They seem in the documentary to be engaged in desperate battle, as I suppose they were.
At ship number one, all was now ready for the big try at 40 degrees. The chances of catastrophe were estimated at 70 percent. But that meant the chance of success was a full 30 percent. Who knows? No one might get killed at all. The ship’s bow was already out of the water. Indians strained at their capstans, cables hummed, the Caterpillar D-8 belched noisily. The ship started up the steep trench—when suddenly a great coupling snapped. Amazingly, no cables flew through the air and no one died, but the ship was motionless. And it remained so for months. Herzog’s “central metaphor” was stuck halfway up a hill in the Amazon.
Now was a time to try men’s souls. Kinski was in a fury. “This much idiot no one has ever been in the world!” In the documentary, we see Herzog, brooding. When it comes to imposing his will on the universe, Herzog is something of a megalomaniac, but now even he is morbid, muttering curses on the landscape, the jungle. Soon, talking to the camera, he has a positive tantrum.
For if Herzog has his central metaphor, I, you see, have a central metaphor of my own. And, in my metaphor, Herzog is a modern German Aguirre who, as the result of a terrible misunderstanding, has somehow joined both the American Friends Service Committee and the Sierra Club. In the early parts of the documentary we see Herzog positively doting on the Indians, the jungle, and the primitiveness of it all, the harmony of nature untouched by the corrupting hand of civilization. The Indians are “lions,” he says proudly. “I wouldn’t want to live in a world where there are no lions anymore.” He expresses contempt for “cows in the field” (domesticated animals), wants to protect his Indians from “contamination” by Western culture. When Michael Goodwin (who wrote the commentary of Burden of Dreams as well as an excellent account of the expedition) remarks on children playing amid raw sewage in the river back at Iquitos, Herzog answers smugly, “You speak as an American. Americans are obsessed with hygiene. A society that overstresses cleanliness is not far away from genocide. The children don’t care. . . . That’s a kind of life that people have accepted, and they like it. It’s very natural.” So all nature is in harmony—sewage, native children, lions, Indians, the jungle—and only civilized man is vile. That is, nature is in harmony provided it does not cross Werner Herzog. When it crosses Werner Herzog, it’s a different story.
“The jungle is full of obscenity,” he rages darkly, with his ship stuck on the hill:
Nature here is vile and base! I see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and rotting. The trees here are in misery. The birds here are in misery—they don’t sing, they just shriek in pain. Erotic? No! There is an overwhelming fornication! There is a curse on this landscape, and whoever goes too deep into it has a share of this curse! We are cursed for what we are doing here! It is a land that God, if He exists, has created in anger! There is no order here, no harmony in the universe! The only harmony is of overwhelming, collective murder! It is a vile, base, obscenity! We don’t belong here! There is an overwhelming lack of order! Even the stars here are a mess. They have no constellations. They just have chaos. There is no harmony! I hate it!
Herzog stops, as if thinking that if he says this, the whole edifice crumbles.
“No, I don’t hate it,” he says grudgingly. “I love it.” He pauses moodily. “But it’s against my better judgment.”
Months later, a construction crew came from Lima and, with heavier equipment, hauled Fitzcarraldo’s ship to the top of the mountain, whence it slid down into the second river. Having experienced the heaviest rains in twenty-five years, however, Herzog now had to wait out the longest dry season in recorded history. But at last, with the film’s emergency funding almost gone, the rains came again and flooded the river, and Herzog sailed one of his ships triumphantly downstream to Iquitos for the final sequence of his picture. And now he has brought this picture to New York, and it has been a tremendous saga, and I am glad he made it.
There are parts of Fitzcarraldo I cannot abide. I cannot bear the hero when he is a goody-goody, and he is a goody-goody a lot. Watching the film, I do not believe for one second that there ever was or ever could be a man so lovable, so benevolent, and so humane, without a drop of meanness in his body, and that by a stroke of divine providence a few thousand Indians would volunteer to haul a 300-ton steamer over a mountain for him. This character is not only impossible, he is silly (and earns titters from audiences at some of his beauty-loving moments).
Still, there is something I like about Fitzcarraldo: the sense of mission, half-mad, obsessive. And there is something that draws me to Herzog himself. He certainly picks up the gauntlet. When a distinguished German film historian, a friend of mine, Lotte Eisner, was sick in Paris, Herzog swore he would walk on foot from Munich to Paris to make her well. And he not only walked the 600 miles on foot to Paris in the dead of winter, but Lotte Eisner, with the help of God, I suppose, got well.
But the basic image of Herzog’s work, as he has said himself, is the myth of Sisyphus, straining forever against his rock. Herzog does not promise victory. He promises struggle. Just what Herzog is struggling for, of course, is something about which I might harbor dark suspicions.
Herzog was born Werner Stipetic—as he would put it, of Croatian and Gypsy “blood.” Raised in his native Bavaria, he recently displayed sharp displeasure at being hailed as a shining example of the New “German” Cinema, affirming, in some pique, that he was a Bavarian. His homeland, he said, was the Bavaria of Ludwig II (“Mad Ludwig”), the builder of “dream castles,” not the Germany of the Prussian Wilhelm II, who was “only capable of starting a world war.” From Herzog’s tirade one would never have suspected that Adolf Hitler (of mixed “blood,” from the German culture’s Austrian periphery, like the family of Herzog himself) got his political start in this same Bavaria, and that if Hitler later chose Nuremberg, also in Bavaria, as the Nazis’ shrine city, holding there the party’s annual congress, it was because Bavaria was a notorious Nazi stronghold.
In all, Herzog’s remarks seemed an entirely invidious and dishonest attempt to dump the onus of any past German misdeeds on the north Germans, particularly the Prussians, as if Bavarians were a race of poets—a deceit the kindest explanation for which would be a sort of pseudologica fantastica, a trait of which Herzog shows considerable evidence, along with a distinct touch of megalomania. Herzog’s official biography, for instance, states (on the basis of assertions that could only have come from the director himself) that as a young man he seriously attempted to found “a self-governing territory in the vicinity of Guatemala.”
So if I consider Herzog’s American Friends/Sierra Club side frankly absurd, I find his Man of Destiny side both mythomanic and disquieting. Against the rising chorus of hosannas for Herzog and Fitzcarraldo, I must record my subjective reaction. I have studied the film, the film about the film, attended Herzog’s press conference, noted his relationship to the Amazonian Indians, his egomania, his strange humorlessness, his peculiar moments of real hurt followed by ruthlessness, his willingness to sacrifice human life, the death’s head.
I am struggling valiantly to admire Werner Herzog. I would like to see in him an artistic sign that European society is not all tuckered out, that it still believes in itself. My effort, however, might be against my better judgment.