Fitzcarraldo: Obsessive Tale of a Steamship and a Hill

Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog
Ey up!

This manic 1982 production from director Werner Herzog (of Grizzly Man fame) is legendary for a number of reasons.

The audacious production created memorable cinematic set pieces, but also entered a legendary developmental hell. Hurray! Let’s explore the jungle.

Fitzcarraldo and Madness in the Jungle

Fitzcarraldo is a film we were eager to watch in our formative years to up our knowledge of cinematic history.

Basically, that point when we were around 16 and super eager to drench ourselves in the knowledge of the world from recent generations.

When we did get to watch it we were a bit disappointed. We don’t think it’s a masterpiece. But it’s certainly highly intriguing.

Complementing the film is Les Blank’s documentary from the same year—Burden of Dreams.

This is actually better than Fitzcarraldo and documents the nightmare that became the film’s production.

Fitzcarraldo is about Brian Sweeney “Fitzcarraldo” Fitzgerald, who is played by the truly wild looking German actor Klaus Kinski (1926-1991).

Now, many actors playing villains or lunatics are just doing their job. Acting. Think of Wes Studi as Magua in The Last of the Mohicans. Terrific, terrifying intensity. But Studi is a lovely, mild-mannered bloke off screen.

Kinski… wasn’t really like that. Intense during his performances, he was also famous for his volatile personality the rest of the time.

That did, however, make him an ideal fit for Fitzcarraldo.

He plays a wealthy man living in Iquitos, a small city near the Andes in the Amazon Basin of Peru. The film is set in the early 20th century.

His love of opera seems him dream of building an opera house in Iquitos.

To fund that, he enters the rubber business of the region to gain more wealth. This involves purchasing an old steamship and heading off down the Pachitea River.

Whilst heading down this, to access a rubber reserve he decides to have the 320-tonne steamship physically hauled over a 40° hillside.

This falls to some of ship’s crew to accomplish, along with many bewildered locals from tribes who are paid to help.

Eventually, the ship hits a comeuppance and Fitzcarraldo fails in his objective.

But has finds pride in how, at least, he finds his cast for an opera production in the city Iquitos.

Yes, then, a famous film. One we find a little overrated, to be honest. It has awe-inspiring spectacle at its very best and a great level of intensity.

Kinski is magnificent and enthralling throughout. But it is quite slow-paced and laborious viewing at times, for all its positives.

Fitzcarraldo’s Demented Production Battles

Grief, we documented a similar nightmare production in the Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau.

Fitzcarraldo’s issues are notably more intense, with many lives constantly at risk.

There were many injuries and deaths during the shoot. Several indigenous workers hired to perform labour, unfortunately, died. A Peruvian logger was also bitten by a venomous snake and severed his foot on the spot in a bid to save his life.

Also, not one but two plane crashes during the shoot left crew members injured.

Almost as bad was how director Werner Herzog and lead actor, Kinski, clashed. Violently and relentlessly.

Kinski appeared to be in some sort of manic episode throughout the shoot, barely in control of himself. He had a history of mental illness he was battling.

At one point he fired off a gun and it was pure luck no one died.

The natives found Kinski intolerable. The local chief made the offer to Herzog to have Kinski quietly bumped off. Killed outright.

Instead, the director used the on set tension to increase the realism of scenes.

A legendary film from history, then, although we feel Herzog’s main strengths are as a documentary filmmaker.

In recent years he’s branched out into more mainstream films and has even done a spot of acting himself in the first Jack Reacher film.

As for Kinski, he’s become a cult icon since his death in 1991. But revelations about sexual abuse have tainted his legacy, made by his daughter Pola Kinski (now 69) in 2013.

All of which adds to the bizarre, rather unnerving nature of Fitzcarraldo the film.

You simply couldn’t go off and make something like this it days. And we don’t mean “back in my day” type of idealisation. It’s a bloody a good thing you can’t.


  1. I never saw this movie, though I remember my parents talking about it and the ‘Burden of Dreams’ docco that went with it. However, some family friends liked the movie so much they named their daughter after it. (This is genuinely true, not my usual Milligoon-style hyperbole). I agree – Herzog is far better as a documentary maker, although personally I find his commentaries to be over-intellectualised and pretentious.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a pretty good film, it’s just another one where the backstory of the production is more interesting than the end result. Herzog’s documentaries are terrific but, yes, he can be a bit pretentious. Good voice, though! Iconic.


  2. Nice! I haven’t seen this one, but I have seen the earlier Herzog/Kinski movie Aguirre, where Kinski is playing a Spanish conquistador in a lost troop of invading soldiers floating down the a river in South America on a raft. Of course, they actually were in South America on a raft floating down an actual river, and I’m pretty sure they all nearly got killed a few times there too. You’re right: you could never make such a film now. Imagine the lawsuits.

    I’ve also seen a few of Herzog’s documentaries: Grizzly Man, a good one about Antarctica as well called Encounters at the End of the World, and one about the death penalty here in the US that I forget the title of.) I agree that he might be a bit pretentious, but if you have enough talent like he does, I can let that slide (same reason I can still like Robert Fripp, even though by all accounts he’s an extremely elitist weirdo, and Fripp is a lot more to take than Herzog from the little I can tell.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not a proper Herzog film unless cast and crew are risking life and limb to film it.

      Herzog was providing an interview with Mark Kermode in 2004 when someone shot Herzog with a pellet gun during the interview. The guy just seems to bring out the crazies! He’s a very good documentary filmmaker, though, Grizzly Man is amazing.

      Liked by 1 person

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