Klaus Kinski in Fitzcarraldo.
(© Werner Herzog Film Filmproduktion and Anchor Bay Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.)

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Few movies have as troubled a production history as Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. Principal photography was 40 percent complete when one of the movie's main actors, Jason Robards, became so seriously ill that he was forced to quit the production. After many production delays, the movie's other main actor, Mick Jagger, had to leave for a prior commitment (a Rolling Stones' concert tour). Virtually all of the film footage shot by this point was now unusable. After a year of filmmaking, director Herzog had to start over from scratch.

Converting the two lead characters into a single character, Herzog turned to his frequent collaborator, actor Klaus Kinski. According to Herzog, he didn't cast Kinski initially because he thought Kinski would go "totally bonkers" if trapped on location in the Amazon during the production's lengthy shooting schedule. Herzog's fears were well founded. Once shooting resumed with Kinski in the lead role, Kinski flew into daily rages. Much of Herzog's time was devoted to holding Kinski together. Kinski became so difficult to work with that an Indian chief (who had a small role in the movie) went to Herzog and offered to murder Kinski. The Indians hated him. They weren't used to people ranting and raving at the slightest provocation. "Kinski was a real problem," says Herzog on the audio commentary track for Anchor Bay Entertainment's new DVD release of Fitzcarraldo. "Sometimes I wish they had murdered him."

But problems with actors were only part of the many complications faced by Herzog. While they were filming near the border of Peru and Ecuador, a border war broke out between the two countries, and soon afterwards, soldiers burned the movie's production camp to the ground. But Herzog's biggest enemy may have been the weather: he found himself working during the largest drought in 65 years. River levels plunged to depths of two feet or less. As a result, the movie's steamship became stranded for months on a sand bar while waiting for rains to return. However, when rains came, Herzog found himself working during the wildest rainy season in history

During the DVD's audio commentary, Herzog tries to dispel the notion that he's a daredevil and that he invited risks. He says, "Things never got out of hand." But then he follows this statement with stories of plane crashes and Indian attacks. One crew member was bitten by a snake with venom so poisonous that cardiac arrest typically followed within seconds. Realizing what had happened, the crew member picked up a chain saw and cut off his own foot. Another man was paralyzed. Another man drowned. When Herzog talks about the movie's climactic scene, which involves a steamboat drifting down a river, he tells us how they had to lash down one of the actors to the helm for fear he would fly through the windows when the ship crashed against rocks.

stills from
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After the cinematographer's hand was split open trying to film this sequence, he underwent a 2½ hour operation to put his hand back together again--and no anesthesia was available. As he screamed and thrashed in agony, one of the two camp prostitutes (!) calmed him by pressing his head between her breasts. (According to Herzog, a Catholic priest urged him to include prostitutes as part of the movie's production crew or the men would go crazy in the jungle.)

While Herzog complains that Les Blank's documentary Burden Of Dreams was responsible for creating the notion that Herzog was a daredevil while filming Fitzcarraldo, almost everything Herzog says indicates Les Blank wasn't far off the mark. However, if Herzog hadn't been such a daredevil, it's doubtful that Fitzcarraldo would be such an enthralling experience. We now live in an age when computerized digital effects can be used to create almost anything that filmmakers can imagine. But when you're watching Fitzcarraldo, you know you aren't seeing digital effects. You can trust your eyes (with the exception of one short scene where miniatures are used).

Fitzcarraldo is the story of a man obsessed. Klaus Kinski plays a businessman named Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (the Indians call him Fitzcarraldo) who dreams of bringing opera to the jungle of Peru. To realize his dream, he attempts a foolhardy/brilliant plan: he will reach beyond an impassable stretch of a river by enlisting workers to drag his steamship from one river to another. Then he can harvest rubber from the plentiful trees in an isolated section of the jungle--and make his fortune. His plan is a good one: on a map, it looks like the rivers almost touch. However, in reality, the two rivers are separated by towering hills.

After the majority of Fitzcarraldo's crew has deserted him for fear of the incessant drumming emanating from the jungle, Fitcarraldo sets a phonograph on a small table on top of the ship. When he drops the needle onto a record, the beautiful, rich voice of Enrico Caruso wafts through the jungle and bewitches the Indians. Soon afterwards, the drums stop, and the Indians row from shore in canoes to meet the ship and climb on board. They become Fitzcarraldo's surrogate crew.

The sequence where Fitzcarraldo leads the Indians to cut a path through the dense brush and drag the ship up an incredibly steep hillside is one of the most incredible sequences ever captured on film. Fitzcarraldo devises an elaborate system of pulleys and ropes that allows the Indians to pull the ship, ever so slowly, up the hill. With the ship shrouded in mist and with hundreds of Indians staining and turning giant wheels, the ship's hull creaks and moans as the ship steadily moves forward. On the audio commentary, Herzog calls the scene a "fever dream": he says it's like "an event out of Italian opera." And he's right. Fitzcarraldo's love of opera has spilled over into his own life.

This new DVD release is one of the best packages to ever come from Anchor Bay Entertainment. It's on par with releases from The Criterion Collection (the Rolls Royce of the DVD industry). Listening to the stories that Herzog and producer Lucki Stipetic tell on the audio commentary track is nearly as captivating as the movie itself. Writer Norman Hill keeps the commentary focused with an excellent group of questions that allow Herzog and Stipetic to talk about the production history as well as the movie's thematic concerns. Among the other extras, the DVD contains a stills gallery, a theatrical trailer, and talent bios of Herzog, Kinski, and composer Popul Vuh.

Anchor Bay Entertainment is now in the process of releasing several Werner Herzog movies on DVD and VHS. The DVD releases will feature audio commentary by Herzog and extras appropriate for each film. Nosferatu and Even Dwarfs Started Small are currently available. Future titles will include Fata Morgana, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Aguirre--The Wrath of God, Cobra Verde, Heart of Glass, Woyzeck, The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, Stroszek, and Herzog's latest film, Kinski: My Best Friend.


Fitzcarraldo is available on DVD and VHS from Anchor Bay Entertainment in a widescreen presentation. The DVD features audio commentary by director Werner Herzog and producer Lucki Stipetic. Additional extras include a theatrical trailer, a stills gallery, and talent bios of Herzog, Kinski, and composer Popul Vuh. The DVD contains both English and German audio tracks, as well as optional English subtitles. Both DVD and VHS versions have been restored to the complete 157-minute running time. The VHS version is only available with an English audio track. Suggested retail price for DVD: $34.98. Suggested retail price for VHS: $19.98