John Orr

Werner Herzog: Spectacle and Extremity

Herzog first uses the image of a ship stranded in the branches of a tree, high above the waters, in Aguirre, Wrath of God. It reappears in Nosferatu when a ship brings the vampire from Transylvania to wreak vengeance on the civilised burghers of Western Europe and infest their town with plague. In Fitzcarraldo this compelling visual metaphor of the ship out of water is made literal. Fitzcarraldo, the Irish adventurer, decides to have his steamship winched overland from one tributary of the Amazon to the other, to avoid impassable rapids and lay claim to an inaccessible rubber plantation. The centrepiece of the film, and the making of the film, is the winching of the ship by a system of cables, pulleys and wheels over the brow of a mountain down to the river on the other side, the ship powering the winding motion through the steam of its own engine, and the enterprise dependent on the physical labour of hundreds of Indians. The process is extraordinary, a complete antidote to the hi-tech, high cost, special effects of Star Wars, Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter