Few films in German film history have generated more buzz and speculation long before their actual release than Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, only a handful have left as many legends about their production in their wake. Reporters alleged human rights violations and deaths among native crew members after visiting shooting locations in the Peruvian jungle. Critics pointed their fingers at Herzog’s unrelenting methods and Kinski’s infamous madness to warn future viewers of the project’s irresponsible blurring of art and life.
Filmmakers delivered windows onto the film, its narrative of operatic ambition and spectacular failure, well before the film itself hit German screens in 1982. In the decade to come, film scholars on either side of the Atlantic found little to praise in Herzog’s Amazon spectacle. In contrast to the earlier Aguirre, which had been widely recognized as an exemplar of New German Cinema’s critical aspirations, Fitzcarraldo during the 1980s and 1990s stood out as a cinematic journey into neocolonial darkness, a film so burdened with Eurocentric fantasies that serious viewers should keep their distance from its images and sounds. If classic works of art communicate a certain sense of timelessness, of remaining fresh and timely even amid most dramatic changes, Fitzcarraldo thus appeared doomed to the dustbins of film history from its inception, a mere extravaganza as futile and useless as its protagonist’s efforts to haul a steamship over a mountain.
Armed with what audiences had been told about the film for years already, I first saw Fitzcarraldo during its initial run in West-German theaters. I came propped with arguments. I came ready to scold its grandiose gestures, reprimand its maker for his uncompromising pursuits, think of what I was about to see as a blurring of politics and art no different from what the time’s jargon called “fascist aesthetics.” I did my job, filed the film away as a monstrosity. Checked it off as something you only had to see so as to know that you should never see it again. As an anti-classic. As something we easily forget because we didn’t really see it in the first place.
Eight years later—a few months before starting graduate school—I found myself traveling in Peru, looping through the country’s northern regions before hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu and then heading on to Bolivia. The focus of this portion of the trip was to cross the lands that surround the Amazon basin and reach the city of Iquitos. Backpacking was rough: you spent hours with thirty or more other passengers on the back of pickup trucks to make your way to certain areas; hostels had lousy beds and rarely warm water; moving in and out of the Andean Mountains required elusive physical strengths and a diversity of clothes no backpack was able to carry. But there was more: while Alberto Fujimori was about to be sworn in as the country’s new president, the Shining Path intensified its guerrilla warfare on politicians, trade unionists, even peasants and the general population. I witnessed bombs blowing up nearby power plants. Armed forces at almost every street corner. Ubiquitous roadblocks. Military police anxiously checking bags and documents. My Spanish was far too bad to maneuver me safely through any conversation about politics. Afraid to use the wrong word in the wrong place, I all too often had no real clue what was going on right around and ahead of me. In the end, not one of my various approaches to descend into the lowlands of the Amazon succeeded. Contrary to my hopes, I never made it to Iquitos, the gateway to river and jungle, the former hub of the rubber trade, the town Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo aspired to bless with opera.
Graduate school eventually allowed me, in some other way, to reach the place Peruvian military and guerrilla had cordoned off in 1990. I rewatched the film I hadn’t really seen a decade earlier but whose images must have been impactful enough to cause me to run up against the obstacles of geography and civil war. An extraordinary scholar taught me how to read film with both open and critical eyes, inspiring me to write a piece about Fitzcarraldo published a few years later. On some level, the essay expressed fundamental ambivalences about the film, its engrossing images and sounds, its obstinacy, its performative and political self-contradictions. On another level, it served as a means to engage with my own rather precarious desire to conquer the useless during my earlier travels and, in coded form, think through what makes us tick when trying to follow our visions, however foolish they may be.
Herzog’s work has been with me, in so many ways and incarnations, ever since. Camden House’s new series on German Film Classics offered unexpected, but welcome, opportunities to revisit the early 1980s and 1990s, yet also to explore what now separates us from them. It extended a generous invitation to approach the film with different eyes while also returning to places never seen and visited before. To dig through the many layers and legends that surround this film and contemplate how it may still speak to us in our own fraught historical moment. To probe the extent to which Fitzcarraldo, in posing questions that continue to resonate with us today, not only has become a classic after all but changes our very notion of what defines artworks as classics in the first place. To wrestle with the film because such wrestling is at the heart of what we do as scholars, students, teachers, artists and—yes—human beings: “Herzog’s efforts to stage spectacles in the Amazon remain deeply provocative and ambiguous. They pose too many unresolved questions to relegate Fitzcarraldo to a closed chapter of film history. There is no end in sight of us hauling Herzog’s film over the messy mountains of time, no river in view that could promise the end of this film’s contested course through history. Similar to Sisyphus in Albert Camus’s famous reading, we do well to recognize our perennial struggle with Fitzcarraldo not simply as a form of punishment, but as an opportunity to reflect on the conditions and limits of happiness.”
This guest post was written by Lutz Koepnick, a Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of German, Cinema and Media Arts at Vanderbilt University.