Saturday, October 27, 2007

Fitzcarraldo’s Dream


I checked out a remarkable movie from Carnegie-Stout Public Library this week, Fitzcarraldo, written and directed by German filmmaker Werner Herzog. Fitzcarraldo (1982) is about a turn-of-the-century Irish rubber baron, played by a crazed Klaus Kinski, whose dream is to build a world-class opera house in the heart of the Amazon rain forest. To finance his improbable fantasy, Fitzcarraldo attempts to reach an inaccessible stand of rubber trees by hauling his 320-ton steamship over a steep hill.

One reason Fitzcarraldo is so remarkable is its lack of special or digital effects. Rather than working with miniature models or fabricated sets, Werner Herzog actually filmed a huge ship being hauled over a hill in the remote Peruvian jungle. It took Herzog took nearly four years to finish Fitzcarraldo, partly because half of the scenes had to be re-shot after the original stars Jason Robards and Mick Jagger dropped out, but also because production was plagued by two plane crashes, a border war, drownings, and other mayhem.

Fitzcarraldo's symbolism is even more remarkable than its lack of special effects, especially within today's context of climate change. Just this week the United Nations published its most comprehensive survey of the environment to date, Global Environment Outlook 4. According to press coverage, the conclusions of Geo-4, written by 390 experts using twenty-years worth of scientific data and studies, are nightmarish: climate change is a daily worsening crisis; it's happening faster than at anytime in the past 500,000 years; damage to the environment may already be irreversible; the amount of resources needed to sustain the current human population exceeds what is available; and mass extinction of animals and plants is currently under way.

Within this context, the destruction of the rain forest and the violent impact this has on the indigenous Peruvian Indians are the most striking aspects of Fitzcarraldo. In one scene, a couple of Indians, jokingly referred to as "bare asses" by the Europeans, are crushed to death when cables holding the steamship break. In another disturbing scene, several Indians use hand axes to chop down a mammoth, sequoia-like tree. The tree is a virile phallic symbol, a magnificent column holding up the roof of the world.

In the audio commentary on the DVD released in 1999, Herzog minimizes these themes of environmental degradation and exploitation, maybe because critics have accused Herzog himself of exploiting the Peruvian Indians during the making of the film. Instead, Herzog insists Fitzcarraldo is about how anyone can achieve their dreams so long as they are persistent. It's not clear if he is referring to the character Fitzcarraldo's dream of building an opera house in the jungle, or to his own dream of making a such an improbable movie. Also not addressed by Herzog's audio commentary: dreams are often folly, sometimes resulting in unintended, unseen, or nightmarish consequences.

Note: Les Blank's Burden of Dreams (1982), a documentary about the making of the movie Fitzcarraldo, will soon be available for check out at Carnegie-Stout Public Library. To put a reserve on Fitzcarraldo or Burden of Dreams, please call the Library Recommendations Desk at 563-589-4225 extension 2225.

~ Mike, Adult Services Librarian

1 comment:

  1. I love Fitzcarraldo. I have seen it once -- during the college film series that I helped promote during my, er, college days.
    I remember hearing the stories about the craziness of the production, and I would love to see a double feature with Fitzcarraldo and Burden of Dreams together.