Sunday, March 1, 2009


It's still winter, and the house is still under construction, so it was a great time for a Werner Herzog film festival! I've been really engaged thinking about the whole nature-mankind-culture-Romantic-Classical paradigm, too, and so wanted to go back and watch (with Steve) the great film Fitzcarraldo. I remembered the broad strokes of the film, but couldn't really remember it's point of view-- where it came out on the whole Nature/Culture argument.

I don't think Herzog knows either. We followed it up with a viewing of My Best Fiend, Herzog's documentary about his relationship with Klaus Kinski. Talking about Fitzcarraldo, he says, "I knew dragging the boat over the mountain was a great metaphor. A metaphor for what, I'm not sure."

Basically, Fitzcarraldo is about a dreamer dragging a boat over a mountain. He is driven by one goal, to bring an opera house to a Peruvian Amazon town. The town is full of boorish rubber barons who don't care about opera. Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, known as "Fitzcarraldo," has a Victrola and a few Caruso records. The rich barons aren't interested, but the Indian children are mesmerized, and hang out in his hut listening to opera.

To bring opera to the town, Fitzcarraldo needs money. He has had several failed schemes (a Pan-Amazonian railroad, an ice making operation), but now hits on a way to become a rubber baron himself. But to do it he needs to take a steam ship into a part of a tributary river that is inaccessible because of rapids. The way to access it, he decides, is through a narrow "pass" over a steep hill. In the process he enlists the help of Machiguenga Indians, who would clearly as soon kill him and his crew as help them. But the Indians have their own reasons. Once they've helped him get the boat over the mountain, they unleash it and it goes through the rapids. Back where he started, Fitzcarraldo sells the boat and uses the money to hire an opera cast and stages the opera on the river boat. He achieves his dream, though in a fleeting way. But he creates a spectacle of great beauty.

So what does it all mean? Even more important to me, what is Herzog's position on nature? Over and over he has made documentaries and films that show rather ordinary people going into extreme environments (on our schedule for tonight the latest of these, Encounters at the End of the World, about Antarctica. He tells the stories, most notably Grizzly Man, in his even tone with his German accent. These are stories about hubris in the face of nature, but not necessarily condemning the impulse.

What he loves, clearly, is people who want to make art. At the center of Fitzcarraldo, what has real value, is opera. A sublime that is separate from the sublime natural environment. Fitzcarraldo is not really a Romantic, in that he is not interested in bonding with nature but with subduing it through culture. In the course of his journey he does not "go native" or join the Indians, or see their way of life as more pure or anything but brutish. The natural world does not thwart him, but nature's children, the Indians, do. He is able to reconsider his goals, adjust them to the situation, and still bring opera to the village.

He lives in the tension between Nature and Culture. That is how it seems to me to be for Herzog, too. He loves people who have single minded ambitions, like Dieter Dengler in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, whose ambition to be a pilot takes him to Vietnam where he survives and escapes a POW camp, and survives the trip through the jungle, not unlike the jungles of Peru. He loves it when those ambitions engage the person with the extremes of nature. And then he lets the story unfold, seeing how the person will compromise (or not) and shape that vision to what is possible (or not).

I relate. I think the Romantic notion that we are meant to be one with nature, have fallen from innocence, and need to return to nature is delusional (see Grizzly Man). We are always "other" from nature, and need to recognize that and integrate that into our view of ourselves. What is amazing about Fitzcarraldo, and about Herzog, and Kinski, is that they do not seem overly impressed with the grand scale of Peru. Herzog is contemptuous of Kinski's "poses" as a man of nature, arriving with all sorts of alpine equipment, and venturing with a cameraman to commune with nature "about 100 feet into the jungle," but otherwise staying completely away from it. Herzog says in an interview on the set that nature is "obscene," an unrelenting series of murders. It's not really about the mountain; it's about the boat. The boat is the means to wealth-- he has no problem exploiting the natural resources. But even wealth is not as important as art, as a man-made thing of beauty. It is the same with hot air balloons (The White Diamond, 2004), with airplanes, with boats.

Also, what is great is that Herzog is open. There is no definitive resolution or interpretation. All the elements are still in play. He remains completely curious, and that curiosity informs all his films.

He also knows a good metaphor when he sees it-- even if he can't tell you what it means.

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