Monday, 3 January 2011

Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo

As I've alluded to previously, it was as a result of seeing a documentary about him (Burden of Dreams) and learning of his passion for walking that I first became interested in the German filmmaker Werner Herzog. Only later, after seeing Encounters at the End of the World at a film festival, did I become a fan of his documentaries. Since then I've watched Grizzly Man, Wheel of Time, The White Diamond, and most recently, Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Until a few weeks ago, however, I'd only seen two of his features (Rescue Dawn and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans), neither of which I really enjoyed. So it was with some trepidation that I sat down the other day to watch one of Herzog's first features, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), a DVD of which I borrowed from a friend.

The opening sequence alone, shot near Machu Picchu on the side of a mountain with a sheer vertical drop of 600 metres, is, as they say, well worth the price of admission. And Klaus Kinski is anything but dull. Some of the other cast members, however, are not so convincing, perhaps understandably so given they're not professional actors. This amateurishness extends to other aspects of the production. But then Aguirre, the Wrath of God was shot on a budget of just US$370,000, a third of which went to Kinski (apparently he demanded another US$1 million to come into the studio to dub his own dialogue, forcing Herzog to hire another actor to do his dialogue instead). Amazingly, it was all shot on a single 35-mm camera, which, according to Herzog, he stole from what is now the Munich Film School.

A decade after the release of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Herzog returned to the jungles of Peru to make another feature, Fitzcarraldo, this time with a budget of US$6 million and a number of famous actors. But to say things didn't quite go to plan would be a gross understatement. Both Jason Robards, who was cast in the title role of an obsessed opera fan who dreams of building an opera house in the Amazonian jungle, and Mick Jagger, who was cast as Fitzcarraldo's "retarded actor sidekick", had to pull out midway through filming, Robards due to illness (his doctor in the United States forbade him to return) and Jagger due to Rolling Stones touring commitments. Herzog himself briefly considered playing the part of Fitzcarraldo, but in the end he called on his old "friend", Klaus Kinski.

Central to the story of Fitzcarraldo is the transportation of a 340-ton ship over a mountain between two rivers. Herzog insisted on shooting this part of the film on location using a real ship and old-fashioned technology (pulleys and cables), and the problems this created helped establish his reputation as a megalomaniacal film director with little regard for the safety of his cast and crew. Herzog emphatically denies that anyone was ever at risk while the ship was being pulled over the mountain. And contrary to popular belief, no one was killed on the film set, although one extra drowned after stealing a boat and capsizing it on a river.

In Herzog on Herzog, Herzog explains the decision to use a real boat as follows:
I want to take cinema audiences back to the earliest days, like when the Lumiere brothers screened their film of a train pulling into a station. Reports say that the audience fled in panic because they believed the train would run them over. I cannot confirm this, maybe it is a legend, but I do very much like this story...

...Nowadays even six-year-olds know when something is a special effect and even how the shot is done. I remember when the film was shown in Germany there was shouting from the audiences at the moment when the boat was hoisted up on to the mountain. Little by little they realized that this was no trick.

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