I saw a pair of films recently that might as well have been siblings: Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Both are by director Werner Herzog, both star Klaus Kinski, and both feature doomed cruises down the Amazon (ala Conrad’s classic). I heard about the first film in an interview with the Mars Volta drummer. The percussionist was discussing the journey of the band, the progression of the music, and he compared it to the iconic scene of the film – hauling a 100-ton steamer up and over a mountain, inch by inch. The latter film inevitably followed when I started researching Herzog – the fascinating director of Grizzly Man.
By choosing such a similar format (the setting and premise act as “narrative control”), Herzog can explore the soul of a single man faced with dire circumstances. In The Wrath of God, the man is Aguirre, a Spanish conquistador driven by the dream of conquest. Splintering off from Pizarro’s expedition, he is given the task of locating fabled El Dorado. Fitzcarraldo takes place during early 20th century, when rich Europeans exploited the natural resources (rubber in this case) of the Amazonian basin. Fitzcarraldo, who dreams of importing Opera to his backwater town, strikes out to an uncharted and dangerous quadrant of land to harvest the rubber.
And so Klaus Kinski is set adrift on a rickety watercraft, floating towards the heart of darkness. He encounters natives, timid and primitive – (who view him a God and lunch, respectively). His crew is lost, his friends desert him, his resources are drained.
It is here where the two films diverge. Aguirre is a man of violence, a soldier who will cut his way through the jungle for glory and power. He represents the original hand of imperialism – exploration and conquest. Fitzcarraldo is also driven by strong dreams. He also exploits the land and the natives, utilizing his “prophetic” arrival to arrange some very heavy labor. Yet he also brings with him a higher calling. When he is surrounded by savages, he pleads with his crew to put away their firearms. Instead, he broadcasts opera on the record player. Perhaps he represents the second phase of imperialism – a cultivating force of western rationalism. The system of pulleys he devises to hoist the steamer up the mountainside is a triumph of engineering.
It is here we see the upside of the journey into the heart of darkness. Aguirre’s party degenerates to savagery, falling into vicious violence, finally to be consumed by the jungle. But Fiztcarraldo brings ingenuity and industry to the jungle – amidst all the absurdity and madness there is a glimmer of meaning.
I highly recommend both films. They’re a bit older, subtitled, and might be difficult to find at the local Blockbuster. But both are truly epic feats of movie-making. The images of the forest and the Amazon river are haunting – from deep mud sucking down armor-clad conquistador boots, ferocious rapids, dense jungle trails, and that iconic scene of the boat creaking slowly up the muddy mountain. Both are fitting successors to Conrad’s original premise – what lies in the soul of man when he journeys into the heart of an immense darkness?