Werner Herzog's Amazon obsession

Telluride, Colorado -- The most disturbing event at this year's Telluride Film Festival was a screening of scenes from a documentary-in-progress about Werner Herzog, the legendary West German director who has disappeared into the South American rain forest on what looks like a suicidal mission.

The documentary was by Les Blank, a Berkeley filmmaker who visited Herzog twice in South America and has returned with what one audience member described as a “portrait of a man in desperate trouble.” Herzog is in the midst of, shooting “Fitzcarraldo," the story of a visionary 19th century European entrepreneur who wants to move a steamship from one South American river system to another and get rich by establishing a trading route.

To make the film, Herzog is attempting to move a large, steel steamship 10 miles through the forest, from one river to another. To date, according to Les Blank's documentary, the project has encountered the following problems:

- Nighttime attacks by warring Indian tribes, resulting in arrow wounds to several crewmembers.

- A civil war that forced Herzog to stop shooting at one location and move his entire production 1,000 miles to a different river system.

- The accidental deaths of three crewmembers.

- Serious injuries to five more in a plane crash, including the paralysis of one crewmember.

- A near-fatal illness by Jason Robards Jr., the original star of the film, who had to be rushed back to the United States. Herzog had to re-shoot all of Robards' scenes with his replacement, Klaus Kinski (who starred in Herzog's 1970 South American epic, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”).

- The beaching and near-destruction of one of the two steamships Herzog is using for the film.

- Dysentery and other jungle diseases.

Blank's documentary shows Herzog growing more distraught, strained and worn down; the fairly optimistic Herzog photographed during Blank's first trip turns, in footage from the second trip, into an exhausted, wild-eyed man not unlike the Aguirre of the 1970 film. “I will make this film or I will die in the attempt,” Herzog vows at one point.

“Aguirre” was a Spanish conquistador who dreamed of finding the lost El Dorado. “Fitzcarraldo” (an Indian mispronunciation of Fitzgerald, the character's real name) is another man who wants to get rich on a fool's errand in the unforgiving jungle.

But to the viewers of Blank's footage about Herzog, it looked disturbingly as if Herzog has set himself an Aguirre-style mission that is similarly suicidal. His attempt to make a fiction film by recruiting Amazonian Indians to actually move a ship through the jungle seems like a doomed obsession.

If Herzog survives and “Fitzcarraldo” is finished, the production will be one of the most extraordinary achievements in the history of movies -- regardless of the quality of the film.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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