Fitzcarraldo

Fitzcarraldo (1982) dir. Werner Herzog

The production of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, in which several people lost their lives or had their bodies mutilated, is often held up as an example of courageous art on the part of the director. It is no such thing, and it’s long past time the filimic community cast a more critical eye on Herzog’s mystique.

The movie is about a 19th Century colonialist named Fitzgerald, who leads his indigenous workers up the river, to death and disease in order to achieve his dream of building an opera house in the jungle. You might expect Fitzgerald to be portrayed as a malevolent figure; a Kurtz or an Ahab. But director Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski see him as an eccentric romantic.

Klaus Kinsky plays Fitzgerald as clearly unhinged. But, he's a crazy, likable artist and so has the audience's sympathy as he sacrifices the natives to his European dream.
Klaus Kinsky plays Fitzgerald as clearly unhinged. But, he’s a crazy, likable artist and so has the audience’s sympathy as he sacrifices the natives to his European dream.

The film itself is clearly problematic, but the real-life experience of those who worked on the production is horrifying. The deadly ordeal was captured in the documentary Burden of Dreams. (a title echoing Kipling’s ode to colonialism) Like the semi-fictional Fitzgerald, Herzog too led his indigenous workers up the river, where they met death and disease.

Nick Thorpe for Sunday Herald Magazine describes some of the horrors:

“In one of the region’s driest summers on record, scavenging Amahuaca tribespeople launched a scavenging hit-and-run raid on the film camp. One man was lucky to survive an arrow through his throat, while his wife was hit in the stomach, necessitating eight hours of emergency surgery on a kitchen table.”

“The attack was only one of a catalogue of disasters, including two plane crashes – in which five people were critically injured, one paralysed – and the death of a young highland Indian who drowned after borrowing a canoe without permission. Among more than a thousand extras, a few perished from disease – though arguably not as many as might naturally have done so without the presence of the production’s camp doctor. A Peruvian logger bitten by a deadly snake made the dramatic decision to cut off his own foot with a chainsaw to prevent the spread of the venom.”

This description of the deaths of native peoples comes several paragraphs into Thorpe’s essay on Fizcarraldo. Their lives are given only a passing mention. I have not found any source the lists their names.

The lives and well-being of indigenous people seem to matter very little to film buffs. Roger Ebert, whom I generally admire, wrote of “the Brazilian engineer resigning and walking away after telling Herzog there was a 70 percent chance that the cables would snap and dozens of lives would be lost” — and yet Ebert calls the film “brave and epic.”

Ebert also wrote of a crew member who was bitten by a snake and had to cut his foot off with a chain saw. Ebert finds that Herzog “could have filmed his entire production a day or two outside Quito, the capital of Ecuador,” but the critic praises the director’s deadly decision because it made possible a few vast panoramas.

Fitzcarraldo

Even more repulsive is the essay at Classic Art Films. It repeats the story Ebert related where the engineer desperately tried to convince Herzog not to put his extras’ lives in danger, and follows with:

“Watching these extraordinary images up on the screen knowing what your watching is the real thing is absolutely breathtaking, and is something no CGI or any form of special effects could ever surpass.”

Imagine a similar scene taking place in America or Europe, in which an engineer tells a director there is a 70% chance of the crew being killed, and the director plunges ahead with the shot. Herzog may have ended up on a blacklist or faced lawsuits. But it didn’t happen there. It happened to indigenous workers, miles away from the nearest city. It is presented as a romantic example of Herzog’s obsession with his craft. And so, the incident actually elevates Herzog’s reputation as an artist — rather than diminishes his reputation as a human being, as it ought to do.

Most of the essays I’ve read on the dangers of the film focus the disputes between Kinski and Herzog, or the emotional difficulties Herzog underwent while trying to make his film. It makes sense to pay more attention to the director and the lead actor than the extras, but the myopic view of their superficial suffering compared to the deaths, illnesses and injuries inflicted on the crew and indigenous cast hearken back to the colonialist attitudes of the film’s setting.

It is more than possible to both make great art and to care for the safety and well-being of those who make it.

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15 Comments

  1. A la verga! May 26, 2017

    White people period. You European whiteys and your dreams of enslaving the world to edit non European infested lands to make every corner of the earth comfy to white European standards. Go back to Europe, STAY and stop pushing your unwanted EVERYTHING on the rest of the world. Fuck Fitzcarraldo. Fuck Herzog. And fuck you sassy white person.. “rich white liberals I swear” go fuck your sister-mom inbred piece of Euro shit.

  2. Exasperated March 6, 2018

    Lol happens quite often mate, go read heart of darkness and then the “contrarian” essay on the subject by Chinua Enchebe. The canon isn’t a fixed entity and challenging it can be important. Having a moral standpoint doesn’t make you a liberal, crawl back under the rock you were born under

  3. Ayelen Cerda November 2, 2018

    I was just seing fitzcarraldo and the production of the movie seemed as exploitative and colonialist as Fitzcarraldo delirium. So I started looking for texts linking the movie with neocolonialist ideas and got to your text. I totally agree with the point you're making here, the relation between the ego of the director represented by the odissey of his protagonist, are reality and representation of the ideology of the progress for the progress and the imortalization of the I in history no matter how many lives or destruction it takes that moves capitalism. Herzog's great deed with this movie was perhaps portrait this capitalist predatory and narcissist way of thinking. Really shameful, he should really respond for this incidents specially his negligence.

  4. 1000s of movies to see and not enough time August 16, 2019

    i have never seen either the film or it's documentary companion piece,but in reading about them just now, I'm happy that the era of brown people being the backdrop, utilities, the other, or the object of movies where whites are the centre, the lead, the subject and the only POV is mostly over. That's not to say I wouldn't watch them, in fact I have them somewhere in my eventual to do list, but I will only appreciate them from a distance of historical perpective

  5. Stay in jungle August 19, 2019

    lol destroy your phone you native. Stop using white technology

  6. emm August 20, 2019

    Adam Call Roberts who wrote this article looks like the most dangerous thing hes ever done is pour hot water into his coffee cup, if hes brave enough to even drink coffee, probably tea or hot chocolate, what a sour weak little character, looks too scared to even use a safety razor or electric.

  7. Maria August 24, 2019

    It's not as though the indigenous people were somehow unexposed to the dangers of inter-tribal warfare, drownings, and snakebites before Herzog arrived. The fact that food/water scarcity triggered a raid on the camp showed that Herzog provided resources (including food, water, money, medicine, and access to a trained doctor) the natives otherwise went without. Nick Thorpe also mentions that the natives organized a revenge attack against the raiding tribespeople. Does the author really think that the number of people injured during the creation of the film (which was over a period of 5 years) really exceeded the previous incidence of injury in the area over the same time period? Thorpe mentiones the death of only a few people (from disease) among thousands of extras living and working in a harsh, resource-scarce part of the world. Not to mention the fact that most of the people who were injuried were reported to be non-natives. Yes, Herzog took irresponsible risks for his film, and he was too cavalier about the possibility of harm, but there's no need to exaggerate it for the sake of making a point about colonialism. Besides that, the author seems to overlook the fact that art can be appreciated despite whatever sordid past might underlie it. The criticism of the other film critics for managing to genuinely like the film comes across as quite shallow and ignorant.

  8. Jude August 26, 2019

    exactly what I wanna say. Maybe I really don't know much about art or films, but it really doesn't take casualties and injuries to make good art.

  9. tom August 27, 2019

    He paid twice the going wage to the locals. How is the making of this movie any different than any other undertaking? People (mostly men) die at work all the time and Werner Herzog has always said he would never ask anyone to do anything that he himself wouldn't do.

  10. James Harris December 26, 2019

    Excuse me? An indigenous tribe attacks a movie camp and murders as many of the crew as it can (one of the Indians drowns in a canoe stolen from the movie company) and the lesson to this writer is "The lives and well-being of indigenous people seem to matter very little." Apparently the lives and well-being of some Europeans trying to make a movie mean absolutely NOTHING to him.

  11. Thomas Sullivan December 27, 2019

    Art now has to filtered through some sort of “woke” lens these days apparently. I hope this trend doesn’t start to limit what sort of films and music that can be made.

  12. cécilia January 27, 2020

    I agree so much with this article. Both Herzog films in the jungle transpire with despise of the people and the land where it takes place. At best indigenous are depicted as exotic curious beings. They got hurt ans some died. The film maker and it's crew put their lives in deadly danger. And how hurtfull it must have felt for the most locals to tear apart the land, destroying part of the forest! You don't understand some fought back! Sorry but I do! And I regret that all these narcissist racist bastards didn't all get killed there! There bodies being eaten by nature would have been more useful than those pointless films

  13. maria January 27, 2020

    Thank you for enlightening us all! I WAS a loyal Herzog fan prior to seeing this film and now I have such disdain for his lack of concern for the well-being of others and their land. I'm grateful to be living in the information age when stories like this can no longer be buried into obscurity. Thank you for bringing truth to power!

  14. Axel Johansson February 27, 2020

    Read "Conquest of the useless", Herzog's journal that he kept during the making of the film. It will paint a whole different scenario with more NUANCES. Don't assume shit because someone wrote an essay. Everything is subjective, my opinion as well. Many journal entries tell of a very warm and caring relationship between Herzog's team and the natives. Women who needed maternal medical care, surgery for three natives who had been attacked by another tribe and so forth. A big oil company was moving in, "employing" natives for the building of a huge pipeline, tearing down forests and digging up rivers. Peru was also on the verge of a potential border war with Ecuador during the making of the film. Herzog knew what he was doing and risking and was prepared to suffer the consequences. Luckily, everything went fairly well if you look at it over the 5 years it took to make. He also, as someone points out in this commentary, paid the natives TWICE the wages of what the locals would have paid them. Bold visions don't equal genius. And yes, in the name of "filmmaking" a lot of morality gets blurry which could be put in to question. But I think that only shows how much art really means to us as humans ;)

  15. Joseph Chip September 12, 2020

    There is nothing more annoying and tiresome than a pretentious white middle-class liberal taking things out of context so that he/she has an excuse to get up on a soapbox and preach about the evils of white people. What Adam Call Roberts neglects to mention is Herzog paid the natives exceedingly well, ensured that they were fully accommodated during shooting, and assisted them in resisting the oil companies who were destroying the land. The deaths that occurred were the result of the inherent dangers of the Amazon; Herzog had barely anything to do with them. Herzog was undeniably reckless when he made Fitzcarraldo, but his recklessness endangered his European crew just as much as it endangered the natives. Obviously, endangering everyone involved is not something to be applauded or defended, but it's worth mentioning since Roberts heavily implies that Herzog's recklessness had an undercurrent of racism to it, which is not the case at all. In fact, Herzog was notoriously reckless long before he made Fitzcarraldo. With La Soufrière, he shot near a volcano that was about to erupt. If it had erupted during filming, Herzog and his entire crew would have been killed; it's sheer luck that they didn't all die a horrible death. And yet I don't see articles by Roberts about how it's disgusting that Herzog put himself and his crew in danger for La Soufrière.