Icarus Also Flew: Fitzcarraldo And Herzog’s Blockbuster Ambition

Werner Herzog has always proudly presented himself as a populist filmmaker, but that ambition is nowhere more apparent than in his 40-year-old blockbuster effort Fitzcarraldo, finds Harry Harris

Film and spectacle have always worked hand in hand, but over time the idea of a truly spectacular film has been subsumed by the more commercial end of the industry, as large-pocketed producers exert demands to “see the dollar on the screen”. Arthouse cinema, then, can often have the contemporary reputation of being smaller, more intimate, less populist, less spectacular.

Which is why it’s always slightly odd – and also a source of joy – when an arthouse filmmaker is embraced by the mainstream, and perhaps no arthouse filmmaker has been embraced in recent years quite like Werner Herzog. Arguably, this has nothing to do with his films – he’s perennially overlooked by the Academy, BAFTA, Cannes, Sundance, Venice, etc – but rather it’s his doom-laden monologues providing a bleak soundtrack for social media feeds, or the viral video of him getting shot while chatting to Mark Kermode in the Hollywood Hills, or appearances in Rick And Morty, The Simpsons, The Boondocks, or Torrey Peters writing him into her novel Detransition, Baby. He has become a meme almost completely apart from his work, but ironically, this populist understanding of him is completely in keeping with it. This is a man who openly considered directing Bill & Ted 3, lest we forget – far from being the kind of intimate, small fare of New German cinema contemporaries Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders, Herzog’s cinema has always been bigger, splashier, and more spectacular, not least in Fitzcarraldo, which turns 40 this year.

Fitzcarraldo is a blockbuster in the purest sense. It is impossible to divorce the film from its climactic sequence, in which the protagonist, aided by an army of indigenous people, hauls his great ship over a mountain in order to fulfill his dream of building an opera house in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. Everything builds to this moment, and given the film’s relatively long runtime, the moment has to deliver. You need to believe he can do it, and perhaps more importantly, that he is doing it – that what you’re seeing on the screen isn’t a camera trick, but in fact something real.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this decision was a protest from Herzog against a more artificial kind of spectacle – the predecessor of the kind of CGI bombast that dominates box offices now. Speaking to the Washington Post, he said: “One of the very early decisions was that there should not be a ‘plastic’ solution, a miniature boat going over a studio hill in a botanical garden in Hollywood. With all these films like Star Wars, the audience has lost faith in what they actually see with their own eyes. I would like to have them back in a position where they can trust their own eyes again.” There’s a spiritual kinship between the sequence and Buster Keaton’s train wreck in The General – the collapsed bridge, the billowing steam, the wide shot making sure you see exactly what’s happening as it’s about to happen. That scene is rightly lauded because it feels foundational, an example of what cinema could do at a time when cinema was still being developed as an artform. Herzog’s own spectacle, and his approach to filmmaking generally, nods to that early period, when the lines between arthouse and mainstream were yet to be so stringently drawn.

There is romance to that spectacle too, and Herzog is nothing if not a romantic. His whole attitude towards nature – that awe, fear, and respect – is indebted to German romanticism, his tableaux often looking like something out of a Caspar David Friedrich painting. And indeed, this romantic streak is why we get the payoff we do, not just in the ship going over the mountain, but in the final moments when the musicians careen down the Amazon, suited up and instruments gleaming, soon to transform this beaten, torn-up ship into an opera house for one moment. In a New York Times interview from the time, Herzog said, “The boat defies gravity – boats simply don’t fly over mountains. So this was a way of showing, quite literally, that only faith moves mountains,” and that faith is rewarded. Not just rewarded, but celebrated. When reflecting on his epic journey, Fitz relates a story of the first explorer to have seen Niagara Falls, coming back to tell people about the majesty and power of what he had seen, his only proof being that he saw it with his own eyes. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what that has to do with me,” Fitz says after telling the story, as if he’s searching for some kind of meaning – that “ecstatic truth” Herzog loves so much – and comes up short, but faith is the commonality. Faith as a driving force. Faith as something that grounds and connects. Faith as something important, hopeful, necessary.

In Jack Gilbert’s poem Failing and Flying, he opens with the line, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.” It’s a poem about romance, ambition, and desire, told from the point of view of a man considering the end of a relationship not with sadness or grief, but instead by holding on to the triumphant, beautiful moments that were contained within it. The Icarus story is told as a tale of hubris, and Fitzcarraldo’s story could be told in the same way too – there’s another version of this film, made by a less romantic, more nihilistic director, in which Fitz is a Captain Ahab type, driven mad by an obsession that is ultimately his downfall. It’s better this way. Much has been written of Herzog’s relationship with his leading man, his “best fiend”, Klaus Kinski, and the unhinged madness of his performances in Herzog’s works, one that is intertwined with their famously tempestuous on-set relationship, and one which speaks to the madness of some of Herzog’s own filmmaking escapades over the years – whether that be to film on the side of a bubbling volcano in La Soufriere, or take a 3D camera into the Chauvet Caves in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. But this interest in madness isn’t born out of ethnographic curiosity. Rather, it’s born out of empathy, and an understanding of the mad, dangerous things people do, when in pursuit of something beautiful. Like building an opera house. Like making a film. Like flying.

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