Fitzcarraldo by Lutz Koepnick

Fitzcarraldo, Lutz Koepnick, German Film Classics by Camden House, ISBN 9781640140363, £12.99, 92pp

An exciting new series for enthusiasts, students, and scholars of German film. Each concise volume analyses a single classic film, delving into such factors as genesis, production, reception, and key personnel. Each book entails archival research and provides not only an introduction to the film but the author’s own ‘take’ on it.

To date the series offers this volume and Wings of Desire, Phoenix and The Golem.

The author is the ‘Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of German, Cinema and Media Arts’ at Vanderbilt University. This ‘private research university’, was founded by the famous or even infamous C19th ‘robber baron’ magnate who specialised in railways and shipping. Gertrude Conaway was a member of the Vanderbilt family in the C20th and a ‘socialite and philanthropist’. So there is an ironic connection between this academic setting and the representation of C19th capitalism in Werner Hertzog’s film.

Lutz Koepnick appears to be a skilled linguist. He has published on film, media theory and aesthetics, including German cinema. Intriguingly one of his other publications is on the US director Michael Bay; ‘World Cinema in the Age of Populism’.

I found this a difficult book to read, taking it slowly and in sections. It is also a difficult book to review. This is partly because of the approach taken by the author..

It draws on recent writing on the Anthropocene to probe the relationship of art, civilization, and the natural world in Fitzcarraldo. (Publishers’ description).

Anthropocene is a relatively new discourse in academia. Helpfully, Wikipedia offers the following:

The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.

The important word is ‘proposed’. There is not a consensus regarding this concept. And it has quite varied meanings; some argue that as an epoch it dates back to the earliest engagement between humans and the rest of nature. Others see it as a modern phenomenon which is only relevant to recent decades. What will be clear is that this is a concept that ties in to concerns about changes in nature and the climate and the whole issue of ‘climate change’.

Koepnick opens with ‘Spectacle in the Forest’ where the author discusses the production and release of the film. He notes the chronicle of the production in Burden of Dreams (1982) which detailed the treatment of indigenous communities and which created a volume of criticism of the director Werner Herzog. Koepnick also discusses how this and other issues around the film fed into its reception. An important aspect is his discussion of Herzog’s public statements and interviews on the film. Herzog has a tendency to talk in broad rhetorical terms rather than in concrete detail; and this did not always play well in the media.

In ‘Dreams (That Money Can’t Buy)’ Koepnick lays out the overall narrative of the film. He also introduces an aspect that in part structures his analysis; the idea that Herzog’s film work is centred on dream worlds. This is something that is found all over discussions of cinema. However, in Herzog’s film world,

. . . [it] is to think of dreams not as Freudian ciphers of repressed desire and distorted wish fantasies but as alternate realities, as engines of world building.

‘Beyond Nature and Culture’ discusses the film in its geographical aspects. Koepnick sets out how the protagonist, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), as an entrepreneur, relates to the these American lands and the way his venture impacts on these. Here Koepnick set out his sense of the Anthropocene;

The Anthropocene, as the reunion of human (historical) time and Earth (geological) time, between human agency and non-human agency, gives the lie to this – temporal, ontological, epistemological and institutional – great divide between nature and society that widened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This gives a sense of the generally academic style in the book. In terms of Herzog, Koepnick sees his film as an early example of an art work that critically dramatises the problems of what he calls the ‘anthropogenic’.

Throughout the book Koepnick focuses on particular sequences to illustrate his analysis and he frequently accompanies these with specific stills from the sequence. Here he looks at an exchange between Fitzgerald and the captain of the ship in which they sail up a river in pursuit of rubber wealth. The ship has been renamed the ‘Molly Aida’, a tribute to Fitzgerald’s amour, the owner of a bordello, and to opera. Here the author points up the disjunction between Fitzgerald’s use of maps and his awry sense of the lands. And here, as he does often, Koepnick draws a parallel with an earlier Herzog film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). This film was also set in the Amazonian regions though back in the C16th, and it also starred Klaus Kinski as the main protagonist. In addition, as with Fitzcarraldo, there were problems about how Herzog used people and resources. He released monkeys featured in the final and famous sequence live into the jungle. And the film was shot on a camera that Herzog had purloined from the Munich Film School. Something, as with his behaviour on Fitzcarraldo, Herzog later justified.

Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God

‘Flow’ addresses the central setting of the river and the broader category of water. This discussion takes in comments on the ‘historical moment’ of the film and, importantly, Herzog’s psychology as it affects the film and the parallels between Herzog and his fictional creation. He references the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. The latter’s idea of ‘historical greatness as individuals who followed:

an unconscious impulse that occasioned the accomplishment of that for which the time was ripe.’

This gives a sense of the driven nature of Fitzgerald but also his domination not by the actual settings and situations but a personal sense of imminent possibilities. In this, Koepnick argues, the character attempts to use the existing world for a rather different purposes. In this story Fitzgerald’s navigation of the river ends not with his stated intent but the film’s finale when he returns to the town of Iquitos with an operatic troupe. Despite what appears to be failure Fitzgerald is ecstatic, apparently feeling that he has achieved a historical moment.

‘The Sounds of Music’ addresses the distinctive treatment of opera in the film.

It is finally time to address what Fitzcarraldo at heart is all about, namely the power of sound and music to express emotions, channel desire, connect different bodies, minds, and souls, and – most importantly – build alternate worlds within and in opposition to the dreary routines of the real.

Koepnick discusses this central plot and motif and focuses onto particular sequences. One is the famous moment when Fitzgerald plays a record of Caruso on the wind-up gramophone to the watching Indians.

The other is the final sequence with the operatic troupe arriving in Iquitos. Koepnick recognises how central is opera to Hertzog’s output; indeed his films have a strong operatic feel. But in term of this film he suggests whilst opera is an expression of the driven and romantic nature of the protagonist he also argues that it serves an alienating impulse which critiques the film itself.

‘On Dangerous Ground’ continues this as one aspect in discussing the way that Herzog and his team actually produced the visual spectacle of the film. The most famous sequences are those when Fitzgerald leads and cajoles the indigenous Indians into hauling a large steamship over an isthmus us between two rivers. It is well recorded that the production used an actual ship on an actual setting, eschewing some of the techniques of special effects to achieve this.

A lot of comment has been made on this, including the toll on the people involved. Koepnick notes these but then argues that for Herzog this ‘real’ effort both creates spectacle but also creates a reflexive take of the spectacle. He quotes from Herzog’s ‘Minnesota Manifesto’ (1999).

There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylisation.

‘In the Wake’ is the final section. Koepnick retreats to take an overview and to look back at the film. Here he uses several other artworks that have been influenced by the film. One is a Polish video construct, Halka /Haiti (2015) and a novel ‘Stromland’ (2018). I have not seen or read either. I could see the parallels that Koepnick drew between them and the film but I did not find this illuminating. This was another point when I found the academic stance of the book tricky to navigate.

Overall the book has an amount of stimulating commentary on the film. The author relates Herzog’s vision to the vision that the film presents of its protagonist. As you might expect there is a lot of discussion of the environmental aspects. Much of this is convincing though I did feel at times that whilst the comments revised the film for the present it was debatable how much all of this was in the minds of the filmmakers when the production took place. My other reservation was that the overall sense of the film that is presented is tied closely to the sense of an authorial vision. I think aspects of the film, for example the way the title privileged actual production over effects, is also a reflection of the times of the film. And the author does seem to accept Herzog’s later rationalisation regarding the way the production treated people; in particular the indigenous peoples. It has to be written that Herzog has a unacceptable record of this type of approach. Apart from Fitzcarraldo, there is the aspect of Aguirre the Wrath of God already mentioned; and there is the scandal that erupted over the rats used in the 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre / Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht.

I also wondered about the choice of the title directed by Werner Herzog, presumably made by the publisher. Technically the film is a West German production, but whilst it addresses European C19th colonialism there is very little in the film which offers a sense of Germany. This reflects my personal estimation of Herzog output; I think the first six titles, ending with the 1977 Stroszek, are his best work. Since then I think his work has allowed uncontrolled expression of his vision; and indeed he has become a film wanderer across the globe. And I think the early films are more expressive of the New German Cinema.

The volume is quite brief, ninety pages. It includes detailed credits and notes, the latter are very helpful. There are sections rather than chapters and no index. There are 40 excellent film stills, well above the usual quality in contemporary publications,. They are in colour and either half-page or quarter page illustrations. And they are well chosen and carefully related to the discussion on the accompanying pages.

I noted this was a slightly tricky book to read but it is illuminating on the film. I suspect that the keener the reader is on this film the more they would take from the book.

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