German director Werner Herzog won best director at the Cannes Film Festival for his 1982 jungle epic Fitzcarraldo. But what may be less known is just how intense and dangerous the movie was to film. The story about its making, in fact, is possibly more compelling than the movie itself, which has been called one of the 100 greatest films ever made.
The story, set in 19th century Peru, follows a failed Irish businessman known as Fitzcarraldo who dreams of building an opera house in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. The film took more than two years to finish. Its original star, Jason Robards, had to quit midway when he came down with dysentery. Once Robards left, Herzog and his cast of 800 Peruvian Indians were forced to start all over again with a new lead: the famously volcanic actor Klaus Kinski. Several crew members were almost killed during filming, one self-amputated his foot after a deadly snake bite, and the Indians nearly murdered Kinski.
"I have a very stark view of the jungle or nature," Herzog tells NPR's Guy Raz. "I think the jungle is vile and debased and full of lewdness and obscenity."
During the filming, Herzog kept a journal. In it, he wrote about his tortured relationship with Kinski, his hatred of the jungle, and his impressions of life among the Amazonian Indians. That journal has been published in English and is titled Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo.
When he filmed the movie, Herzog famously declined to use any special effects. At one point, he managed to move a 320-ton steamship over a muddy hill into the Amazon River; it took 11 days and hundreds of people. Once the boat was placed in the river, Herzog's crew began filming a scene with Kinski on board. When the boat hit a torrent of rushing water, it slammed into a rock.
"We were tossed so violently, that I saw the lens flying out of the camera," Herzog recalls. "I tried to hold the cinematographer, and we flew into the air. He banged his hand on the deck and the camera was still in his hand, [and it] split his hand apart between the last two fingers."
Herzog's onset doctor ran out of anesthesia, but still managed to save the cameraman's hand.
Meanwhile, Kinski's outbursts nearly caused the Indians to abandon the project.
"When he was really raving and ranting, he could scream in such a way that he could shatter glass just with his voice," Herzog says. "He would scream for an hour, an hour and a half until foam froths gathered on his mouth."
Herzog says it took him more than two decades before he could read the journal.
"It was a terrifying [experience]," he says. But he also says it was cathartic. And despite the advances in digital filmmaking, Herzog says he would still film the project in precisely the same way.