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.
At the end of the film, the doctor is captured. Driven mad from visions of the ghosts of his victims, he is taken to an asylum.
Although parallels between Caligari, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler and the true psyche of 1920’s Germany is debated, the relation between Fritz Lang’s sequel and German politics is undeniable.
During the ten years after Gambler, Germany descended into political chaos. The country’s electoral system forced its centrist parties to negotiate with extremists on both the left and the right, who roamed the streets murdering opponents and – in the case of the Nazis – terrorizing as many Jews as possible. The Nazis won a plurality of seats in July 1932, just before Lang started filming The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
When Testament opens, Dr. Mabuse is locked away in his cell, scribbling furiously. Hospital director Dr. Baum collects the notes, which give instructions on how to commit various crimes. Baum praises Mabuse’s genius mind to a class of students, unmistakably mimicking Nazi gestures.
Inspector Lohmann discovers that a secret gang of criminals is replicating Mabuse’s instructions to the letter. The gang is organized in a manner similar to the Nazi Party was. Some gang members wonder about their boss’s plans. Their crimes aren’t making any money. Instead, they seem designed to create fear and chaos. (Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knightwas inspired by Dr. Mabuse.)
After the war, Lang stated that he made Testament as an anti-Nazi allegory.
“Thus I hoped to expose the masked Nazi theory of the necessity to deliberately destroy everything which is precious to people. Then, when everything collapsed and they were thrown into utter despair, they would try to find help in the “new order.””
Although Lang probably exaggerated some of his anti-Nazi activities, (such as his stories of a midnight train ride out of Germany after Goebbels offered to put him in charge of the Nazi film program) critic Michael Walker examined the evidence in a 2011 journal article and found Lang’s claims about Testament credible.
Walker lists many parallels, so I’ll focus only on my favorite. One of the most visually arresting scenes of Testament exposes the Mabuse propaganda machine. When gang members are to receive instruction, they enter a room with a drawn curtain. Behind the curtain is the shadow of “the boss,” who issues orders. They never see the man behind the curtain.
One of the gang members and his girlfriend take a peek. They see a cardboard cutout and a speaker.
Testament was scheduled for release on March 23, 1933 – the day newly-appointed Chancellor Hitler asked the Reichstag to vote him emergency powers in the Enabling Act. Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Goebbels first delayed, then canceled Testament’s premiere, as a threat to public health and safety.
The Last Laugh is a true silent film. It has only one title card, and it is put in as a joke. Emil Jannings (who later won the very first Oscar, became a Nazi and was burned alive in Inglourious Basterds) does an excellent acting job, but F. W. Murnau’s camerawork is the star.
The technique was called Entfesselte Kamera (Unchained camera technique). Unlike the heavy, static cameras of the sound age, Muranu’s camera moves, tracks, pans, tilts, zooms and even literally floats.
Or, rather, Karl Freund’s camera. The famed German cinematographer later worked on Metropolis with Fritz Lang and essentially co-directed Dracula with Tod Browning.
The Last Laugh tells us of a doorman at a posh Berlin hotel. He parades around in front in his military-style uniform, as though he were one of the dignitaries inside. He certainly seems to be the toast of his working-class friends. But he is demoted for being “old and weak” and is given a job as a bathroom attendant. He steals back his own uniform so his neighbors can remain impressed, but the ruse only works for one night. He collapses in the bathroom corner, exhausted and disgraced.
Finally, the first title:
a sad ending, but not exactly unexpected. However, a twist:
The next scene shows a newspaper article, detailing how our protagonist accidentally inherited a fortune. He is now waited on at that same hotel, and treats all the employees with generosity and kindness.
The happy Hollywood ending is as out of place with the rest of the film as the sarcastic titles are.
Metropolis is director Fritz Lang’s most famous work. The 1927 German silent classic is renowned for its epic German Expressionist style and its sweeping influence on the science-fiction genre.
The world of Metropolis somewhat resembles that of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, minus the cannibalism. The comfortable elite play and lounge about at infinite leisure. Their brave new world is made possible by the downtrodden underclass. (both of those last words are literalized)
The early plot is consistent with the dystopian tropes that were well established in literature by 1925. Freder grows up assuming he lives in a utopia, but his curiosity leads him to discover his society’s Deep Dark Secret. He confronts the dystopian overlord, who in this case happen to be his father.
So far, the film plays as a worn-out Marxist critique of industrial capitalism, with some Biblical motifs. Consumerism is the idol Moloch, while the city’s largest skyscraper is the oldest symbol of human hubris – the Tower of Babel.
But we get a very interesting twist when Rotwang is introduced. Rotwang is a Dr. Frankenstein character; man’s faith in science. Rotwang seeks to replace his dead love with a robotic copy. (I never claimed the symbolism was subtle) Freder’s father uses Rotwang’s ability to create a robot replacement of the workers’ leader, Maria, in an attempt to trick them.
The real Maria states our theme blatantly – the heart must be a mediator between the mind and the hands. Of course, this prophesied Mediator turns up incarnate as Freder, and this is where the fascist wrinkle really takes hold.
Fritz Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou co-wrote the screenplay and novelization of Metropolis. A few years later, she joined the Nazi Party, and Lang (who was ethnically Jewish) divorced her and fled to America. Hitler was reportedly a big fan of Metropolis and of Lang’s work in general. He seems to have fancied himself as Freder.
The political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history. In its place advance the oppressed producers of the head and hand, the forces of Labour, to begin their historical mission. – Joseph Goebbels
The working class revolt falls into anarchy and mayhem. They are not capable of governing themselves; they need a master class to govern them. The elite however is not responsible enough to govern directly; they need a sympathetic go-between who is wise enough to manage everything.
The above paragraph is an excellent brief description of how a fascist might describe her political ideas.
Metropolis is a key example of the problems that arise when you end dystopian fiction with a new utopia. Rather than a comment on human frailty, it is simply saying “my method of creating paradise is better than your method of creating paradise.”
Lang and von Harbou tore down the Tower of Babel – and promptly replaced it with a new one.
Despite my criticism, Lang most certainly did not intend to create a pro-fascist work. He later said he had regarded the plot as “silly” and was fascinated by the robots and the style. The story itself seems more of a pastiche of dystopic ideas than a necessarily coherently structured argument. Nevertheless, Von Harbou’s sympathies can be detected throughout.
Metropolis was recently re-re-re-restored, and the current version is nearing the end of its American theatrical tour. It will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in November. The official release site is http://www.kino.com/metropolis/