It’s September 16, 2013 and I’m flying from Arequipa to Iquitos, but it isn’t until I look out the window of the plane that I begin to realize exactly what I’ve done. Down below, I see for the first time the muddy brown waters of the Amazon snaking its way through an utterly endless expanse of green. The trees stretch out in all directions, and from this vantage point it seems impossible that there could be a city out here. Or a town. Or anyone at all, let alone a landing strip for the plane I’m on.
As I look at the jungle below, what I’m realizing is that I am somewhat terrified. I booked the tickets and the hotel and found the guide and planned the itinerary and the only reason my partner is with me at all is because I brought him here and now I’m afraid. I’ve never seen a landscape that looked so ready and willing to swallow me whole.
But there’s no turning back: tomorrow my partner and I will meet our guide and head out away from the city (if it can really be called that) and into the unknown.
When I rewatch Fitzcarraldo, my own memories get tangled up in the scenery. The sunsets remind me of the ones I saw, the jungle of those feelings of anxiousness and awe. As I said in my opening statement, I think this kind of melding is something that would please Herzog, whose own personality melts so seamlessly into his character’s, the two sharing a uniquely singular passion.
But my connection to Herzog and Fitzcarraldo doesn’t end with having seen the same stretch of river and thick forest with my own eyes. It ends with Walter Saxer.
Walter Saxer is a 60-something-year-old German man with an imposing salt-and-pepper moustache who could always be counted on to be found wearing a white linen shirt and white linen pants and matching newsboy cap. He owns (or at least manages) the hotel we're staying at. He was also Werner Herzog’s longtime production manager and producer, who worked not only on Fitzcarraldo, but Aguirre, Wrath of God.
For three nights in Iquitos, we stayed at La Casa Fitzcarraldo—the same hotel where Herzog and his crew stayed during the famously difficult production of its namesake. Framed production stills line the walls and the rooms are all named after the stars that stayed in them (we ended up in Claudia Cardinale’s suite). A saucer-eyed ocelot paced in a cage near the front and locals dominated the poolside. Walter greeted us with a hearty hello, and when we asked where the nearest ATM could be found, he reached into his pocket to pull out his wallet: “You need money? I’ll give you money!” We did not take him up on this.
Although I’d read Conquest of the Useless, a collection of Herzog’s diaries from the making of the movie, I wouldn’t remember until much later just how prominently Walter featured in them or just how profoundly the two disagreed. These disagreements could end in shouting matches or the silent treatment, but they were still the least of the troubles that would plague production, the most famous of which being an offer from the chiefs of the Ashininka-Campa and Shivankoreni-Machigungas tribes to murder Klaus Kinski. Herzog demurred, admitting that filming hadn’t wrapped and he still needed Kinski alive, but the high-maintenance actor’s reputation for violent outbursts makes me think the offer sounded at least a little bit tempting. I couldn’t help but think about all of this as I walked around the hotel in a truly unbelievable heat.
The next day as my partner and I walked with our guide through the crowded market to the docks to spend two days out in the jungle, I recalled a line from Conquest: “Just as mass can undergo compression, spiders can probably also be compressed, condensed, and the result is tarantulas.” I hoped I’d never be able to verify this impression for myself.
In a way, that line gets to the heart of Herzog’s relationship to the jungle: he’s equal parts horrified and amazed by its power. In Burden of Dreams, the documentary about the FItzcarraldo’s production, Herzog said, “It is not that I hate [the jungle], I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment.”
I can understand this, especially after witnessing the fruits of his labors in it. What he accomplishes in Fitzcarraldo is nothing short of extraordinary. I try to imagine what the film would be like if he hadn’t been committed to dragging a 300-ton steamboat over a mountain himself, if it had been a miniature on a soundstage the way the studio originally suggested. Surely it’d be doable—good, even. But the film ends up being so much more than that because of his commitment to an impossible-sounding dream.
I’ve been asked why I went to Iquitos, why I wanted to reach the Amazon, but I think Herzog can explain it better than I can. He opens Conquest with this: “A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter gives up trying to calm him ... and I, like a stanza in a poem written in an unknown foreign tongue, am shaken to the core.” He’s describing his vision of the steamship and the mountain, but it works just as well for my thoughts about the murky waters of the Amazon some 3,000 miles away. All this just goes to show how intimately Herzog understands passion, obsession, and the power of dreams, and it’s why out of everything in his body of work Fitzcarraldo means the most to me.