Fitzcarraldo: First as Tragedy, then as Opera
In a fevered act of self-definition, Fitzcarraldo declares himself “the spectacle in the forest,” a capitalist intent on building an opera house to the forbidding South American interior. That self-bestowed name doubles as a fairly obvious tagline for a review of the film: “a spectacle in the forest.” Fitzcarraldo’s director, Werner Herzog, is a noted exponent of what he calls “ecstatic truth,” realized in personal humility before the power of images rather than in calculated dissection. Fitzcarraldo is first and foremost notable for its steel-clad commitment to a romanticized authenticity, as director Herzog discarded special effects to tell the story of a man who dragged a titanic ship (historical pun not entirely unintended) up a mountain. By this I mean that Herzog duplicated his tragic hero’s monumental, foolish act by actually hiring hundreds of native people to help him drag a ship over a mountain, all the while documenting it.
Roger Ebert, Herzog’s friend and fellow Romantic, always swooned for grand gestures. In his “Great Movies” entry for the film, he treats this act as a noble, almost sacred act of will:
The movie is imperfect, but transcendent; this story could not have been filmed on this location in this way and been perfect without being less of a film. The conclusion, the scene with the cigar, for example, is an anticlimax; but then everything must be an anticlimax after the boat goes up the hill. What is crucial is that Herzog does not hurry his story along; he seeks not the progress of the plot, but the resonance of the images.¹
This statement implies a kind of rapture for Herzog’s ability to enforce his will on nature and on the people the payroll. Our protagonist’s wife more or less asserts the same thing, insisting that because Fitzcarraldo had gone through many trials to see an opera, he had a transcendent right to see it despite having no ticket. Herzog, of course, obtained the images we see in Fitzcarraldo only by leaving a huge trail of destruction in its wake. Any critical edge the film might wield against colonial exploitation of nature and oppressed peoples collapses because its production involved a repetition of these very crimes. As Koepnick notes, “For Herzog the filmmaker, spectacle is the stuff of life.”² Like his protagonist and barely detached double, Fitzcarraldo, Herzog risks everything on an act of sheer will for the sake of a spectacle, for the sake of transforming the forest into a theatre for the civilized to indulge in primal awe. Our director is not unaware of this parallel, and makes valiant attempts within the film to put distance between his production and the co(s)mic nonsense to which his hero aspires. This is, I think, ultimately to no avail because it can’t escape the material fact of the film’s production process. At the end of a long, difficult project, a swathe of forest lay in ruin and numerous indigenous workers were let go after contributing to a fleeting, manufactured act of heroism. In contrast to attempts at revolutionary filmmaking in Latin America in Cuba and through projects like Blood of the Condor, Herzog here forges his art through unapologetic exploitation and self-aggrandizement. To paraphrase Koepnick, we can only believe in the critical dimension of this film when we forget the man behind the camera.³
The film’s narrative and conception are both rife with repetition. For the latter, it is an obvious successor to the earlier Aguirre: The Wrath of God, in that it recounts the river-bound journeys of opportunistic Western colonizers bent on bringing the West to the jungle. Fitzcarraldo’s repetition of this basic outline, though, is not without difference. By shifting our setting to the turn of the century, our conquistador becomes a suit-wearing industrialist. The colonial project is not some spectral nightmare but a material fact, evidenced by the grand imperial cities, vast rubber plantations, and thriving export business that define the economic landscape of most of Latin America (even up to this day in many places). Where colonial civilization for Aguirre and crew meant scattered outposts in the midst of a vast unknown, Fitzcarraldo struggles just to find a niche he can wedge himself into. Driven out of venture after venture by competition and poor planning, he is driven to desperation not because of the lack of Western “civilization” but because of its festering overabundance. Peru in the film is a neocolonial state, run by Creole “natives” in the interests of European importers and big industrial firms. Capitalism is only a newborn in Aguirre, still very much leaning on religious crusading ideology and mysticism. Fitzcarraldo’s world is a far more venal one, already diagrammed, cut up, bought, and sold by the time he stumbles onto his boat bound for the last scrap of good land he can find unclaimed.
This repetition reverberates throughout the narrative of the film as well. Opera performances both begin and end the film, and both times Fitzcarraldo is in a comic or at least awkward situation. He is late and disheveled at the beginning, broke and ruined at the end. Charmingly, the performance at the end of this expansive, tragicomic drama is The Puritans by Vincenzo Bellini. Moreover, at the centre of the film there is a kind of literal and figurative whirlpool: the opera-obsessed man navigates the ship upriver and over the hill only for the Native Americans to sever the ropes and let the ship drift back down through the rapids, thus completing a circle. Viewed schematically from above, Fitzcarraldo is a structural wonder despite feeling curiously like a long and dreamlike digression.
When you wake from the dreams and get down to the concrete, down to the dirt and water, you find a film far more enmeshed in imperialism and capitalist ideology than at first blush. At its core, this is a result of its dualistic and antagonistic view of humanity and nature. Herzog, weary after years of production, unleashed this rant for a documentary crew:
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!⁴
Herzog thus construes the relationship between humanity and the rain forest as fundamentally alien and antagonistic. The two share nothing in common and hold each other in contempt. As writer Amaranta S. reflects:
The Western world still acts as though the man vs. nature paradigm is adequate because capitalism forcefully maintains these attitudes. Like many elements of Western culture, dualistic thinking has become just another tool to rationalize our capitalist economy…Within capitalism there is no theoretically sound way to engage in sustainable practices because the possibility of a fall in production or profit levels undermines the whole system. Therefore, people’s antagonistic relationship with nature cannot be resolved as long as capitalism still exists. This antagonism is both sustained and rationalized through dualistic thought.⁵
Fitzcarraldo’s spectacle is electrifying, and its dramatic powers are considerable, but they are also ultimately stupefying. Far from grasping some transcendent quality of human nature, the film’s images start from a grave mistake and go on blundering until the curtain closes. Like opera, it’s a characteristic work from a Western world bloated with the stolen riches of the colonial world, a shiny bauble reflecting all of the imperial nations’ arrogance and self-destructive pathologies back to it. It is grotesque and monstrous by design, but its birth, like that of capitalism itself, involved a boatload of monstrosity. It’s history once as tragedy, again as opera, an act of foolish daring that earns no right to respect just in virtue of its difficulty. It was “brave” of Pizarro and his thugs to topple the Inca Empire, and yet I hope no one reading this believes that wins them any merit.
1. Roger Ebert, “Fitzcarraldo,” http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-fitzcarraldo-1982.
2. Lutz P. Koepnick, “Colonial Forestry: Sylvan Politics in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo,” New German Critique, no. 60 (Autumn 1993), 158. http://www.jstor.org/stable/488669.
3. Ibid, 157.
4. Todd Gitlin, “Review of Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog,” Film Quarterly vol. 37, no. 2 (Winter 1983-84), 51-52. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3697392.
5. Amaranta S., “Duality and Ecology,” Revolutionary Ecology, entry posted April 7, 2014, http://revolutionaryecology.com/2014/04/07/duality-and-ecology/