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.
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.
“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.
“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.
I'm a journalist and film enthusiast who lives in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I've been writing about movies for 15 years and I hosted a weekly movie review television show on UATV for two years.