Director Werner Herzog has claimed on multiple occasions in the past that he does not understand irony [see #4 here: “I have a communication defect: I understand jokes but I do not understand irony”]. Watching a film like Fitzcarraldo, that is hard to believe: not only is the most iconic image of the film—a gramophone foregrounded against the backdrop of the Amazon valley—meant to evoke an ironic contrast between technology and nature, “civilization” and chaos; but the film also cultivates an attitude of irony toward its eponymous central character, a obsessive eccentric whose dream of an opera house in the middle of the jungle ultimately comes washing up on the banks of the Amazon.

In fact, you might say that Werner Herzog is not simply familiar with irony, but is a master of it. His insistence on his own naivety is most likely a device intended to keep audiences from dismissing his films as nothing more than eccentric comedies. His films are made with much more grandiose goals in mind than tickling his audiences; they often try to broach nothing less than the question of the separation between humanity and nature. As he [unironically?] intones at the opening of his nature documentary Encounters at the End of the World [2007], “... my questions were different … I kept wondering, why is it that human beings put on masks or feathers to conceal their identity, and why do they saddle horses and feel the urge to chase the bad guy? ... why is it that a sophisticated animal like a chimp does not utilize inferior creatures? He could straddle a goat and ride off into the sunset.”

In Fitzcarraldo, no goats are ridden off into the sunset, but a steamboat is dragged over a mountain, a gargantuan feat that the filmmakers actually accomplished themselves. The grand irony here is that this great feat turns out to be for nothing, and is accomplished by a rather strange and unpleasant man. Although the story evokes the familiar Man Who Would Be King format of “ambitious European succeeds in adventure despite the odds,” he strikes us as a strange and petty man, rather than a noble figure. The film is about a man with a dream: to build an Opera House in the middle of the Amazon jungle. 

This dream is one of European, colonialist hubris, one that has mistaken the Romantic celebration of nature in German opera for nature itself and presumed that the subordination of nature to culture is possible. Nature, the film wants wants to tell us through its story of a borderline-psychopathic opera fiend, is not in tune with human desire: it does not forgive or redeem; it just is. 

In the first three-quarters of the film, the jungle is depicted as beautiful, even serene, as the underdog steamship chugs down the river. And Fitzcarraldo seems to succeed despite the odds: he acquires a boat despite the reluctance of his fellow European rubber-and-rail barons, he navigates the Amazon upstream, he drags the boat over said mountain, and he sweats out a potential rebellion by the indigenous people working for him. But finally, the boat is destroyed by the rapids, and even the magic of Enrico Caruso singing from the gramophone bolted to the upper deck of the ship can’t help him.

The film’s understanding of nature is distinct from, even opposed to, those Romantic representations of untouched nature that veiled and supported 19th-century European colonialism. All the same, it’s hard to know exactly what to think about Werner Herzog’s relationship to colonialism. His first film set in the Amazon valley, Aguirre: The Wrath of God [1972], reads as broadly anti-colonialist—it is, after all, about a conquistador who goes mad with lust for power [and his own daughter] in South America. But some later films, like Cobra Verde [1987], make colonialism seem more quirky than destructive. Here, the ironic contrast set up between “opera” and “jungle” is redolent of classic Eurocentric thought. 

Colonialism is ultimately ancillary to Herzog’s other concerns, which should earn him some just critique. The representation of the indigenous people in Fitzcarraldo is not as demeaning as in contemporaneous films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the film is also clearly not interested in understanding and exploring that culture in the same way it wants to talk about opera. And while its representation of nature steers clear from an outmoded Romanticism, it arguably instigates a new kind of negative Romanticism, which figures nature—and, problematically, indigenous people along with it—as the abject rather than as the sublime.

That being said, Fitzcarraldo’s exploration of human ambition and extremity is often both insightful and funny, beautiful and absurd. Its commentary on the relationship between capital-n Nature and capital-c Culture, although fraught with its own manner of shortcomings, remain a fresh antidote to simplistic romanticiziations of the topic. And in the end, the film succeeds because it cultivates such a strong sense of irony toward its main character and its subject matter—despite what Herzog may claim about his peculiar “communication defect.”