Eccentric German director Werner Herzog, often seen as obsessive and bent on filming ‘reality itself,’ shot two movies in Peru’s jungle: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). Herzog’s accomplishments in getting these movies made at all − during havoc-fraught filming conditions − are in some ways more remarkable than the finished products.
Klaus Kinski, the lead actor in Aguirre, was a volatile man prone to extreme fits of rage. Herzog’s documentary My Best Fiend details such incidents as Kinski beating a conquistador extra so severely that his helmet, donned for the part, was all that saved him from being killed. Then there was the time near the end of shooting when, after altercations with a cameraman on the Río Nanay, Kinski prepared to desert the film crew on a speedboat. Herzog had to threaten to shoot him with a rifle to make him stay. (To tell both sides of the story, however, My Best Fiend also reveals that Herzog admitted to once trying to firebomb Kinski in his house and according to other members of the film crew Herzog often over exaggerated.) Kinski’s biography, Kinski Uncut (albeit partly ghostwritten by Herzog) paints a picture of the director as a buffoon who had no idea how to make movies.
Filming Fitzcarraldo, the first choice for the lead fell ill and the second, Mick Jagger, abandoned the set to do a Rolling Stones tour. With a year’s filming already wasted, Herzog called upon Kinski once more. Kinski soon antagonized the Matsiguenka tribespeople being used as extras: one even offered to murder him for Herzog. While filming near the Peru–Ecuador frontier, a war between the two nations erupted and soldiers destroyed the film set. Then there was the weather: droughts so dire that the rivers dried and stranded the film’s steamship for weeks, followed by flash floods that wrecked the boat entirely. (Some of these are chronicled in Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog’s film diaries, translated into English in 2009.) To hear another side to events during filming, chat to the folks at La Casa Fitzcarraldo, owned by the daughter of the executive producer of Fitzcarraldo the movie.
Herzog could certainly be a hard man to work with, filming many on-set catastrophes and using them as footage in the final cut. The director once said he saw filming in the Amazon as ‘challenging nature itself.’ The fact that he completed two films in the Peruvian jungle against such odds is evidence that in some ways, Herzog did challenge nature − and triumphed.