It’s nearly impossible to talk about Fitzcarraldo without discussing Burden of Dreams. The former, Werner Herzog’s most ambitious film to date, is the subject of the latter, a documentary by Les Blank that chronicles its chaotic production. Indeed, Blank’s portrait of Herzog’s persistence in the face of numerous obstacles has almost come to eclipse Fitzcarraldo entirely, the conventional wisdom being that it’s a more compelling portrait of madness and quixotic resolve. The making of the film, which stars repeat Herzog-collaborator Klaus Kinski, is a legend on par with Apocalypse Now, both productions saddled with an unhinged leading actor and unforgiving shooting locations. Blank’s film, featuring extended monologues and reflections by Herzog, also helped establish the rogue director’s eccentric persona. But Fitzcarraldo is more than just another outrageous story of an artist realizing his outsized vision. What’s remarkable, ultimately, is what comes out of the fusion of these two films—the revelation that Herzog chose, essentially, to undergo the same journey as his eponymous protagonist, purely for the sake of authenticity. If a stand-in for the director exists anywhere in the Herzog canon, it’s Fitzcarraldo.

The linchpin of this crazy story, though, is that the man upon whom the character is based, Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald, went about his journey somewhat differently, and in a much less arduous way. This man, in order to move a steamship over an isthmus, dismantled the vessel and brought it to the neighboring river piece by piece. Herzog, dubbing himself “The Conquistador of the Useless,” decided instead to have the boat dragged over the mountain in one piece—not just in the film, but for real.

Fitzcarrald is reimagined as Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald—he goes by Fitzcarraldo when Peruvian natives can’t pronounce his surname—a would-be entrepreneur living in Iquitos, Peru in the early 1900s. Having already failed to build a trans-Andean railroad and now in the business of ice production, Fitzcarraldo dreams of erecting an opera house in Iquitos and inviting the famous tenor Enrico Caruso to perform on opening night. Financing his various enterprises is his inamorata, Molly (Claudia Cardinale), the owner of a brothel that rakes in considerable sums daily. But the cost of an opera house is clearly beyond her means, and the wealthy rubber manufacturers in Iquitos won’t fund his project, so he purchases an unclaimed piece of land upriver and sets out to harvest the native rubber trees as a plan to enact his dream.

But in order to do so, he must get his boat over a mountain dividing a more easily navigable river from the river on which his land is situated. Ultimately, Fitzcarraldo is a story of a man fighting against nature, the primary obstacle to realizing his dream. Gravity itself is an antagonist here, as a system of pulleys barely allows a team of native Peruvians living in the jungle to haul the massive ship up the slope of the mountain. The section of the film that depicts this is simultaneously the central episode of the story and the record of its own creation. Herzog documents the herculean feat with a minimum of embellishment, the sheer awe of the event enough to sustain interest and suspense.

Even without the awareness that what’s happening onscreen actually took place, the sense of authenticity is there in the details, in the crudity of the rope-and-pulley system, in the toil of the workers and in the two gruesome, muddy accidental deaths that result from a failed attempt. But considering the ordeal Herzog went through to finish the film, it’s hard not to see it as a metaphor for the act of filmmaking itself—certainly in the case of a director like Herzog, who is very much at the helm of his work, bending his cast and crew to his will even in the face of collective resistance. It’s easy to read anything into a metaphor that’s so available to be interpreted, but the correlation between the character’s journey and Herzog’s own is too close to be ignored.

While Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece with an accompanying, outrageous behind-the-scenes story, Fitzcarraldo is an overlong, somewhat distracted film that may have needed Burden of Dreams as its second act. It’s not necessarily a fault that the film becomes so focused on the physical travails of the journey, but it does result in a film that’s fascinating in spite of a weak narrative, and ultimately benefits from extra-narrative information. So although some may find Fitzcarraldo a bore next to the “real” story, in a way it’s actually energized by the latter. Sure, interesting production histories can enhance the appreciation of any film, but more than that, Burden of Dreams imbues Fitzcarraldo with an almost manifesto-like significance for Herzog—a statement of purpose, an assertion of the artist’s will. Forget the self-imposed hardship of the stunt with the ship; Herzog continually working with Klaus Kinski, who was prone to sudden, protracted outbursts of rage during shooting, is arguably just as significant an ordeal, one that again is self-imposed for the sake of a specific desired outcome. Fitzcarraldo, the penultimate film in their ongoing collaboration, is a testament to Herzog’s resolve, but more than that, a tribute to human determination.

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