Purple Television

[April 2 2020] : film

Purple Paradiso: “Fitzcarraldo” by Werner Herzog, 1982, Your Movie Of The Day Curated By Savannah Nolan and Olivier Zahm

Purple Paradiso: “Fitzcarraldo” by Werner Herzog, 1982, Your Movie Of The Day Curated By Savannah Nolan and Olivier Zahm

Fitzcarraldo is an epic film about a man with a dream — to build an opera house in the middle of the uninhabitable and dangerous Peruvian jungle. The lead character, played by Klaus Kinski, calls himself Fitzcarraldo, referencing his abiding love of opera music. Few motion pictures have captured the frenzied power of obsession as effectively as Werner Herzog’s masterpiece. Portraying a mad enthusiast determined to build an opera house, against the backdrop of 19th-century capitalism running amok, the film embodies the personality of its director, who has often been called megalomaniacal, enigmatic, ultra-disciplined, and psychotic — bent on telling his stories as truthfully and as raw as possible. For Herzog, whose films often walk the line between reality and fiction, this meant carrying out his protagonist’s same mission in the real world and filming the result. 

The film is an enigmatic metaphor for musical obsession (Italian opera including Giuseppe Verdi, Vincenzo Bellini, Giacomo Puccini). This opera obsession challenges the opposite of culture: the wildness of nature, its power, beauty, and danger (the jungle forest and its dangerous rivers). It’s a cinematographic representation of the violence of capitalist civilization at its beginning, trying to fight nature for the sake of superior values (art). Herzog dictated to Hollywood producers that he did not want to shoot any scene in studios. The filming had to be a physical and existential experience for the whole team. The film encapsulates the destruction of nature, mirroring how capitalism alienates and destroys indigenous cultures through the alibi of beauty and music. 

While working on Fitzcarraldo, Herzog demanded that a real ship be pulled over a real mountain in the jungle (as the script called for) and refused to shoot the sequence in a studio with special effects. Herzog’s four-year production, lasting from 1978 to the film’s release in 1982, is among the most unwieldy productions in recent film history, perhaps eclipsed only by the filming of Apocalypse Now.  After an endless series of crises that in many ways the director generated, Herzog emerged to call his film “a great metaphor.”  For what, he cannot say.  But the imagery and storytelling prove undeniably powerful. To this day, Herzog remains scarred from the production, perhaps because completing this film under such constant duress established his identity as a filmmaker and storyteller. 

After Fitzcarraldo, his output would dwell almost exclusively on the film’s theme of human conceit in the face of nature. Arguably, this film is the greatest achievement from the hugely volatile Herzog/Kinski partnership. Plenty of injuries were incurred in the name of art: Herzog’s cinematographer, filming on-board the steamboat, had his hand sliced open — it had to be stitched up without anesthesia. Another crew member was bitten by a venomous snake and cut off his own foot with a chainsaw to avoid cardiac arrest. Apparently, a few indigenous people died. 

A group of local indigenous people offered to murder Kinski for Herzog because of his temper tantrums complaining about the food that was available for lunch.  In the end, the boat made its way successfully over the mountain and Herzog captured it all on film — challenging the basic laws of nature and triumphing. But the triumph looks pathetic and narcissistic rather than glorious. During the filming of Fitzcarraldo, an interviewer asked Herzog, as he stood in the middle of the jungle, what his plans were after the shoot finished. He morosely replied, “I don’t think I should make movies anymore — I should go to a lunatic asylum … right away.”

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