Conquistador of the Useless: Fitzcarraldo (1982)

The story of Fitzcarraldo (1982) was inspired by the real-life story of Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald, who arranged for the transport of a steamship piece by piece over the mountains to the Madre de Dios basin in Peru. Of course, if that movie was made today, it would be a combination of models and CGI. But not for Herzog. He did it for real.

Herzog’s cinematography is natural and mobile, insisting on location shooting and doing impossible tasks.

This is one of the films where the making of the film is almost as exciting as the film itself. The film production was an unbelievable ordeal, and it really involved moving a 320-ton steamship over a hill without the use of special effects, making Werner Herzog proclaim himself as Conquistador of the Useless, believing that nobody will achieve a similar feat ever again.

Initially, Herzog started shooting with two other main roles: Mick Jagger as Fitzcarraldo’s assistant Wilbur and Mario Adorf as the ship’s captain. However, due to delays, they left the project, and Herzog merged the two characters into one. At first, Herzog was hesitant to cast Klaus Kinski, thinking that he would go absolutely crazy being trapped in the jungle for months. Of course, that was exactly the case. According to Herzog, native extras were upset by his behavior, and one of the chieftains in all seriousness offered to kill Kinski for him. Herzog declined since he needed Kinski to complete his scenes but still isn’t sure to this day whether it was the right decision.

Herzog’s characters are often eccentric and compulsive, like Fitzcarraldo, an obsessive opera fan, played by Klaus Kinski.

Sometimes it’s needed to separate the real-life person from an artist. That’s the case with Klaus Kinski as well. He was notorious for his erratic behavior (along with real-life family scandals), and no director wanted to do another picture with him after the first ordeal. Of course, Herzog marched on to make five movies with Kinski, but moving a ship over a mountain was probably an easier task. Their relationship is depicted in the famous documentary My Best Fiend (Mein liebster Feind – Klaus Kinski, 1999), showing how Kinski was a major source of tensions on the set, complained about everything, and fought violently because of trivial matters.

The production was plagued with deaths and injuries. The food was scarce and disgusting, there were no medical supplies, and one of the extras died of malaria. There were a lot of native Aguaruna extras who worked for $2 a day in appalling conditions. After the filming, Aguaruna men burned down the set in December 1979. According to Herzog, during filming, one Peruvian logger was bitten by a venomous snake so he immediately cut his own foot with a chainsaw to prevent the spread of the venom, to which Herzog commented it was a good decision since he lived. Herzog also mentioned that a Catholic priest advised him to include sex workers so that the men wouldn’t go crazy in the jungle. Turns out, he was right: cinematographer Thomas Mauch‘s hand was injured so he endured a 2.5-hour long operation to fix his hand without anesthesia, and one of the camp prostitutes calmed him by pressing his head to her breasts.

Fitzcarraldo is one of the films where the making of the film is equally exciting as the film itself. The production was plagued by injuries, deaths, and with the immense toll of actually dragging a boat over a mountain.

And that’s only a part of the production story. But let’s get back to the film itself. Brian Fitzgerald, pronounced Fitzcarraldo by the locals, is a huge opera-lover living in Iquitos, a small city in Peru in the early 20th century during the rubber boom. He dreams of building an opera house there, so he enters the rubber business, and discovers that Pachitea River is really close to the Ucayali River in one place, which is otherwise inaccessible, and could use it to transport rubber. He recruits a crew with the help of his lover and takes off up the Pachitea. The natives start to physically pull the 320-ton steamer over a hill which is 40 degrees steep.

As you can see, one of Herzog’s favorite themes is man vs. nature, which is prominent not only in his movies (cf. Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1972) but also in his documentaries (Grizzly Man (2005), La Soufrière (1977), Encounters at the End of the World (2007)).  Herzog’s protagonists are often obsessive and eccentric people (cf. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Cobra Verde (1987), or Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)), and Kinski was the epitome of obsessiveness and a walking monument of eccentric, unstable and whimsical behavior. 

Old Missionary: Well, we can’t seem to cure them of the idea that our everyday life is only an illusion, behind which lies the reality of dreams.

Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald – ‘Fitzcarraldo’: Actually, I’m very interested in these ideas. I specialise in opera myself.

Sometimes Herzog invents a new reality, for example, the map in Fitzcarraldo does not reflect reality. And sometimes he creates a reality where there should have been fiction, like in the case of Fitzcarraldo, where he insisted on pulling a 320-ton steamship over a mountain, while the real Fitzcarrald “only” had a 30-ton boat dismantled and transported. And I think movies should be like this, not only creating fiction out of facts but also create a fact out of fiction. There’s a scene where hundreds of natives stand silent in awe in front of an ice block since they had never seen ice before. And we should do the same in front of a film like this one.

One of favorite Herzog’s theme is the binary opposition of man vs. nature.



  • Ames, Eric (2014). Werner Herzog: Interviews. University of Mississippi Press.
  • Herzog, Werner (1986): Werner Herzog – Filmemacher (Portrait Werner Herzog), an autobiographical short film.
  • Herzog, Werner (2014). A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin. Faber & Faber.
  • Prager, Brad (ed.) (2012). A Companion to Werner Herzog. Wiley-Blackwell.

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