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  • Writer's pictureMiles Stephenson

Fitzcarraldo (1982), Werner Herzog [5/5]

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

The major set piece in Herzog's Fitzcarraldo — hauling a 320-ton steamship over a jungle mountain with 19th Century tech and indigenous labor — is matched only by the Everest of the film’s real production. Les Blank's 1982 "making-of" documentary, Burden of Dreams, takes us behind the scenes of this Sisyphean task to Peru in the early 80s where a fresh-faced, soccer ball-kicking, and determined Herzog holds together a sinking ship. Throughout the doc, we see Herzog negotiate with local infighting tribespeople, recast his lead Jason Robards after shooting nearly half of the film when the actor falls ill with dysentery, write a major character out of the script after the actor (Mick Jagger) was called back to tour with The Rolling Stones due to production delays, and persevere to finish the work after his dispirited crew becomes nearly defeated by the jungle. One story recalls that a member of the film camp was shot by an arrow through the neck; it was also reported that a native tribesman had to sever his own leg off with a chainsaw to survive a venomous snakebite. Everywhere the crew faced rumors that they meant to harm the local people; this lead to political strife in the area and even physical violence.

Despite the overwhelming indifference of the jungle and the immeasurable setbacks, both Fitzcarraldo's lead, rubber baron Brian Fitzgerald (played by an especially wild-eyed and lyrical Klaus Kinski) and filmmaker Herzog never falter in their visions. Shot in the same cultural zeitgeist as Coppola's Apocalypse Now and dealing with many of the same themes, Fitzcarraldo soars far above its more popular counterpart in terms of capturing the primordial apathy of the jungle in stunning, misty photography of river bends and canopies, the Joseph Conrad-inspired evil of colonialism and imperialism, and the will of man to triumph over failure. 5/5, a masterpiece, a sublime monument to the realization of dreams in the heart of darkness of the Amazon rubber boom.

Miles Stephenson

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