Photo by Edwin A. Franken
If the three rivers around Iquitos – the largest city of the Peruvian Amazon – do dictate life here, then never did they do so more infamously than in German director Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo.
The story revolves around the life of aspiring rubber baron Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, played by Klaus Kinski. Drawn by an abundance of rubber in a zone of the Amazon thought inaccessible due to rapids, Fitzgerald’s solution is to avoid the hazard by hauling a 360-tonne steamboat over a steep isthmus. Of course, things go wrong. Having achieved the seemingly impossible by dragging the boat to within reach of the lucrative rubber trees, during the crew’s drunken celebration party local tribes cut the mooring ropes and the boat careens back downriver to destruction. The river ends up getting its way.
Walter Saxer, executive producer of the film, the shooting of which is still more legendary than the storyline, lives on in Iquitos’ Avenida La Marina: a wide boulevard juxtaposing manic river-port industry with lavish 19th-century mansions. “I’ve got a surprise for you,” he says over a coffee in the leafy garden of his house, where the entire cast and film crew stayed between 1977 and 1982 during filming on the nearby Río Nanay. “Enrique’s here.”
If you know Fitzcarraldo the movie as I do, you would be just as excited about meeting Enrique. He plays the role of the drunken cook in the film who, as one of the mismatched cast of characters thrown together on the doomed boat, puts in a performance that steals the limelight even from the larger-than-life Kinski himself. “The problem was that Herzog wanted to film reality,” Walter says. “He didn’t just want to make a film about cheating a river and dragging a boat over a mountain, he wanted to cheat the river and drag the boat over the mountain.
“Why did the filming take so long? Well, why wouldn’t it? Jason Robards was first choice lead; he got ill, Mick Jagger replaced him then had to leave for a tour; we were a year plus into production and we had to start over. Then we were filming in the worst drought this area had seen in decades. We had to film in under a meter of water sometimes. The boat we used got stuck on a sandbank, water levels were that low. Imagine that: wanting to film rapids and being in the middle of the Amazon’s worst drought since the 1920s!
“Dragging that boat over took four weeks. The irony was, the film was based on a true story but the real Fitzcarrald took a 30-tonne boat over the mountain, having disassembled it first. We brought a 360-tonne ship over intact.”
Enrique, his face remarkably unchanged since Fitzcarraldo’s release in 1982, and if anything more mischievous, recalls other aspects to the filming. “It’s been well documented: the tensions during the shoot: Herzog and Walter, Walter and Kinski,” he says. “But what I remember was the glamour. There I was, a local guy who had never seen the world, who knew nothing but Iquitos and its rivers. Suddenly, I was getting out, attending glamorous premiere events in the US, in Europe. I’d never have done that. Most people in Iquitos will never get the chance to do that. This is a very cut-off place.”
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