Jungle Madness

Mick Jagger had left, Jason Robards nearly died, but a steamship went up an Amazon mountain. Director Werner Herzog talks about his grand spectacle,'Fitzcarraldo'

Werner Herzog in Cannes, France. Credit: RALPH GATTI/AFP/Getty Images

WERNER HERZOG, THE FORTY-year-old German filmmaker, isn't one to be daunted. When a dwarf actor injured himself on the set of the director's 'Even Dwarfs Started Small' (1969), Herzog, in order to encourage the cast and get the movie back on schedule, promised to jump into a gigantic cactus when shooting was finally finished. (He did.)

When the German film historian Lotte Eisner was sick and in a Paris hospital, Herzog decided to walk from Munich to the French capital, thinking that when he arrived there, she would be out of danger. (She was.) And when, in 1976, the volcano on the Caribbean island of La Soufriere seemed ready to erupt, and the inhabitants were shipped off to safety, Herzog sailed onto the island to film an extraordinary documentary about the one man who had refused to leave. (La Soufriere didn't explode, but who was to know?)

However, Herzog's most recent film, 'Fitzcarraldo,' almost proved his undoing. The movie, which takes place at the turn of the century in the Peruvian Amazon, tells of a man named Fitzcarraldo (played with irremediable frenzy by Klaus Kinski) who, so obsessed with raising money to build his own opera house in the jungle, decides to move a 320-ton steamboat over a steep hill from one river tributary to another in order to gain access to an inaccessible region of valuable rubber trees. Aided by hundreds of mysteriously motivated Indians, Fitzcarraldo oversees the amazing project: his boat is laboriously, moved, foot by foot, over the hill, only to be unmoored by the Indians on the other side of the river bank. From there, it winds up careening into the raging rapids; the Indians view this as an act designed to appease the evil spirits of the river. Fitzcarraldo, his mission a failure, refuses to give up his operatic obsession. He salvages the damaged but still-floating boat and sails it proudly into the port of Iquitos, with a visiting opera troupe performing grandly on its deck.

Five years in the making (or unmaking, as it almost turned out), 'Fitzcarraldo' was plagued by a border war between Peru and Ecuador, a plane crash, feuding Indian tribes, a disastrous rainy season and illness. The original Fitzcarraldo, Jason Robards, came down with amoebic dysentery and was forced to go home; his sidekick in the film, Mick Jagger, couldn't return to the set because of the Rolling Stones' 1981 American tour. Undaunted, Herzog started again from scratch, rewrote the script, brought in Klaus Kinski to play the lead role and somehow managed to finish the film –– wresting, like Fitzcarraldo himself, success from failure. (Herzog's trials and tribulations are revealingly documented in Les Blank's 'Burden of Dreams,' a film about the making of 'Fitzcarraldo.')

"There were days when I had the feeling that there was a curse on the whole project." Herzog said during our conversation in New York in September. "The real achievement of the film is that I finished it—that I would not stop, that I would not be scared away."

In 1973, you made 'Aguirre, the Wrath of God,' which was set in the Peruvian jungle. And now you've returned there for 'Fitzcarraldo.' One of the characters in this new film says that the jungle is full of "lies, demons, illusions." Why are you fascinated with it?
In the film, the old missionary tells Fitzcarraldo that he finds it hard to get the natives away from the idea that our everyday life is only an illusion behind which lie the realities of dreams. So when I refer to the illusions or dreams or hallucinations or demons of the jungle, I'm actually talking about an intensified form of reality. . . . And it's a better part of reality, by the way [laughing]. All of a sudden, an event that hundreds of persons have witnessed is converted into some sort of mythical, distorted, dreamlike story – —it's quite amazing. And you have to deal with these kinds of fantasies; they're part of the vapor that is sweat out by the jungle. That's what I like about the jungle, even though it just hits back at the idiot who comes in and wants to make a film there.

You've made films in the jungle as well as in the desert and on a volcanic island. What is it about these elemental landscapes that draws you to them?
These landscapes are extreme ends of what our planet is all about. And they have an enormous visual force. You can stylize and direct the desert and the jungle. Both of them are very good characters, and you can modify them as you would human characters.

But it seems as if these landscapes direct you as much as you direct them.
Yes, probably even more! I never saw it that way, but that's okay. I mean, Kinski, for example, directs me to a certain extent as well. Yes, that you are as much directed as you actually direct a movie is an interesting idea, and one that I think applies to everyone who intensely makes films.

The ideas of direction and obsession always seem to be connected in your work, too.
Of course. And you can see it easily in Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre. You know, I'd never been in the jungle before, yet I described it very vividly in the screenplay for Aguirre. And when a friend asked how I could describe it since I'd never been there, I replied, "I describe it with such intensity that the jungle has no choice but to be the way I imagine it." And, actually, it was! To a certain extent, filmmaking re-creates a jungle, or it puts it into a certain form that is somehow almost beyond the very nature of the jungle. . . . But the jungle has its other side as well, since it makes me part of it . . . against my better judgment and my will. And, of course, against my pleasure, my easy life.

After spending such a long time in the jungle, what was it like for you to return to civilization?
Coming back to Germany –– and the United States, too; I wouldn't make such a big distinction— – was such a shock! It's always been unsettling, but this time it was a very deep shock. I had the feeling that I'd landed in a country that was filled with lunatics! And I had the feeling that the real life was going on down there, the kind of a life that we should be leading as human beings, and that somehow life here was all sick and wrong and distorted. Of course, this was a shock reaction, and it faded away to a certain degree. But the basic feeling has never left me –– that the very reality of our existence does not take place here. Not anymore. To me, the States, for example, are exotic . . . not Peru and the jungle.

What about it is exotic to you?
When you step into an airplane, for instance, everyone smiles at you. Almost automatically, when there's no reason to smile. It's just frightening [laughing]

In 'Fitzcarraldo,' the Indians are just as obsessed as Fitzcarraldo himself. He wants to build an opera house in the jungle, and they want to appease the evil spirits of the river rapids.
Both sides think they are doing the same thing for the same purpose. And it ends, of course, in a great achievement for the natives and a disaster for Fitzcarraldo, though he converts it into a triumph. . . . But they simply have different dreams.

But are they really that different? Fitzcarraldo thinks that the playing of a Caruso record as his boat floats down the Amazon will soothe the natives' savage breasts and pacify the demonic forces.
There's an instant respect and rapport between the two. And when the boat crashes through the rapids, it jerks the gramophone so that it starts playing opera music. . . . All the realistic noises fade away, and you only hear Caruso singing on this scratchy record. And that makes it into some sort of very stylized, dreamlike event. . . . And the pulling of the boat over the mountains also becomes an operatic event. When the boat actually passes over the mountain, you no longer see any people, and it's as if the boat were gliding by its own force over the top. That's what I like very much. Had we shown anyone there, it would have been a realistic event, an event of human labor,of human work. Now they are images that only occur in dreams.

How did the boat get up that mountain?
We had a rainy season, which was unprecedented— – at least for a century –– and we had landslides every second day. So we needed a bulldozer to clean the path all the way up. And we needed it to level the ground a bit, because the inclination was too steep— – we had to dig ourselves about a hundred feet deep into the mountaintop. It also gave us a good part of the power for pulling the cable, but that's not the decisive element. We had about 700 native Indians who actually moved the winches, and they provided much of the pulling force. But, theoretically speaking, I myself could have pulled the boat over the mountain with one little finger, given the fact that we had a pulley system with a 10,000-fold transmission. It would have taken very little strength; I would have had to pull the rope about five miles, say, until the boat moved five inches.
One of the problems was the weight of the boat, which sank into the mud, and how to put it on rails or logs. But the main problem was the inclination. Very real things occurred that we couldn't look up in any book of instructions about how to pull a boat over a mountain, because nobody had done that before. It was the small, technological things that we had to learn in a very painful procedure. For the reality is: boats do not go over mountains, they don't fly, and there is such a thing as gravity. But Fitzcarraldo has a very defiant attitude toward gravity. It's a film that works in defiance of the laws of nature. And, of course, you run into deep trouble that way.

People have wondered why you didn't just build a small replica of the boat and have it going over a fake mountain?
Because you would have seen the difference, there's no doubt about that. Movie audiences are quite sophisticated nowadays, and they'd know that this was a trick, even though they wouldn't be able to identify it precisely.
This also concerns a basic attitude I have concerning images on the screen. I want audiences to trust their own eyes again. It's very strange: when the boat starts going up the mountain, everyone watching this scene in the movie theater starts whispering to his neighbor and pointing at the screen, because he or she wants to find the trick. No one believes it. And then after, let's say, twenty seconds, everything calms down, and when you sit with an audience, you can sense that all the viewers are back in a position such that they can trust their eyes again.
Cinema has deviated very far from this. Science-fiction films, for example, are wonderful because they're pure imagination, and that's what cinema is all about. But on the other hand, all of these films hint that what you see is artificially made in a studio with back projection and miniature spacecraft. But this isn't to say that a film like Star Wars shouldn't be made.

Would you like to make a science-fiction film?
I've thought about making one, but what I'd want to do – —and what I did in Fata Morgana— – is take what you can find here on earth and give it a certain quality of something that can't possibly exist on this planet.

In that sense, 'Fitzcarraldo' is like a science-fiction movie.
It may be, yes – probably because Fitzcarraldo and Star Wars are at such opposite ends that, behind our backs, the two films come very close to each other.

Have you seen 'E.T.'?
No, but all the people in whose solid and sound judgment I trust liked the film. That means a lot to me. I want to see it.

What recent films have moved you?
I liked The Elephant Man and Eraserhead awhile back. And there is one great work I saw at the Cannes Film Festival –– a Turkish film called Yol, directed by Yılmaz Güney, which won the grand prize. And I must say, it's one of the films that has touched me so deeply— – like barely anything else in the last ten years. It's just a masterpiece. . . . But there is one truth: there are many more festivals than good movies.

How did you feel about Rainer Werner Fassbinder's death?
I'm cautious about saying that everything he made was good now that he's dead. I found many of his films quite slovenly made and bad. For example, I find Lola to be a very bad film. I was so annoyed that, for the first time, I wanted to go to the box office and ask for my money back. At the end, I was too cowardly to do it, but I think it's a bad film.
It was always strange with Fassbinder. He would make three or four films I didn't like, and I almost lost confidence in him. And then he would come up with a great film. It was always like that. But it's sad that he's not around anymore, because he was like a sweating, grunting, fat and nasty wild boar who would just run through the underbrush and open a path behind him that was passable for everyone else. And it's sad, because we need that kind of wild creature. I was never close to him, yet I miss him.

Before you reshot and recast 'Fitzcarraldo' with Klaus Kinski, what was it like working with Mick Jagger?
I left his entire part out in my final script because I liked him so much as a performer in the film. He was so extraordinary I had the feeling that any kind of replacement would be an embarrassment. He's a great actor, and nobody has seen that.
I liked his attitude very much. In Iquitos, he had a rented car, a small Volkswagen; when we had some trouble getting people across town, he would chauffeur them for us. But that was only part of his general attitude. What I liked very much about him was that he knew the value of real work. And he's a professional in the very best sense of the word. The test on Mick was particularly strong because, during the past fifteen years, he has lived quite a different life – a life where everything is organized by people. But he adapted very quickly to the circumstances.

In the film, someone calls Fitzcarraldo "the conquistador of the useless."
It's meant as an insult, but he takes pride in being the conquistador of the useless. And so am I [laughing]. No, what I'm doing isn't completely useless, though it sometimes comes close to it. But our existence would be sad and useless if we didn't have literature or music or movies.