That crazy gleam in his eye is real.
But then who else but Klaus Kinski could play the role of a mad visionary who dreams of building an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle?
Actually, director Werner Herzog’s original choice was Jason Robards. Robards became ill and Herzog was forced to scrap the footage he had shot with the American actor and call on Kinski to play the part of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, a fictional character (very) loosely based on the exploits of Carlos Fitzcarrald, a real-life madman who lived in the Peruvian rainforest city of Iquitos in the 19th century. Herzog had already worked with Kinski on three previous films (Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Nosferatu, the Vampyre, Woyzeck) and knew about the actor’s notoriously volatile temperament from first hand experience.
Kinski more than lived up to his reputation while filming the jungle epic. In fact, legend has it that the actor’s erratic behaviour so angered the Peruvian Indians cast as headhunters in the film that one of them offered to kill Kinski as a favor to the director. Herzog graciously declined the offer. (Years later, Herzog shared his experiences working with the temperamental actor in a German language documentary Mein liebster Feind – translated loosely into English as My Best Fiend – in which the director refers to Kinski as both a nemesis and a muse.)
Coping with Kinski would have been a fulltime job for any film-maker. But Herzog also insisted on shooting on location in the unpredictable and often treacherous Amazon jungle and moving a 340 ton steamboat across steep mountainous terrain utilizing several hundred Peruvian Indians and a complex system of pulleys.
I saw a feature length documentary (Burden of Dreams) on the making of Fitzcarraldo a number of years ago and ever since then I have wanted to see the actual film. To judge from the documentary, there was as much drama behind the scenes as there was in front of the camera. (Mick Jagger was originally cast as Fitzgerald’s weak-minded assistant. Mick had to leave the film for a Rolling Stones tour so Herzog scrubbed his character from the screenplay. In Burden of Dreams, there is some test footage of Jagger preparing for the role. )
Kinski’s cheerfully unhinged performance is worth the price of admission alone. (And judging by film lore it may have been the only time he was smiling.)
The dramatic moving of the boat is the real deal. (Oh sure, some doubters claim the German film-maker used models to achieve the desired effect. But then some folks believe the Moon landing was faked, too. )
The resulting film is a labor of love (some might say obsession.) It is also a tribute to Herzog’s gritty sense of purpose and his skills as a filmmaker. (Herzog’s insistence on realism may be one reason why there are almost as many documentaries as fiction pieces in his filmography. My favorite Herzog docs are Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.)