Iquitos was briefly transformed during with the making of this legendary film. I was there to see it happen, and here’s what I saw.
Filming on a hot afternoon in Iquitos
The German director roars his sentence into the oppressive heat of the Amazon: Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog film production, 1a, the first, flap!
This day will stay in my memory. I’m the only European journalist on the ground, for whatever reason. The calendar shows the 4th of January 1981. It is a Sunday.
Just before noon while the sun is high, the heat sticks to your body as if you were in an Asian laundry room. Today, they use 1,500 extras. The crowd gathers to shoot a scene along the Malecón of Iquitos.
A movie that starts playing out in real life
Embarrassed, almost shy, Werner Herzog directs the filming. The movie is about insanity. Fitzcarraldo, a Cauchero, wants to bring a big work project to the Amazon basin. It’s a pretty crazy idea for the jungle, and more madness follows closely behind. close. And by putting together this large filming production, Werner Herzog strangely resembles Fitzcarraldo.
For both: the greater the difficulties, the stronger his will to finish his project. Herzog has become his own movie character. During the film’s production, he said “I am not very interested in what the German newspapers write about me. I do not care if people go into my films, that’s only economically relevant. I’m only interested in completing the Fitzcarraldo film.”
This film is big news for Iquitos
The film is a big event for Iquitos. Werner Herzog brings work to the Amazon in areas where the eight million dollars want to stay: interpreters, cooks, doctors, costume tailors, drivers, plumbers, skippers, mechanics. In Calle Putumayo, a spacious tailor’s shop and the costume office are set up. For several weeks Herzog is the largest employer in the whole of the Amazon after the military.
If you listen in Iquitos, you quickly feel the enthusiasm and exuberance. The filmmakers are macho – for a man in these latitudes, this is a great compliment. The wiry director jumps from towering trees, the producer beats his hand bloody without a grimace and the production manager George Sluizer travels through the Amazon, which here at Iquitos is as wide as twenty football fields.
The extras are the shooting with a full heart. They pay a thousand soles to each person per day which, within a country that is hopelessly impoverished after 12 years of military dictatorship, they gratefully receive.
Let the cameras roll
Producer Walter Saxer and director Herzog explain the scene via megaphone. They explain thing such as why it is important for the cameras to capture the bright colors of the actors’ clothing, why cinematographer Thomas Mauch wants to film the mothers with children in the foreground. The tone between the filmmakers and the filmed is warm, the extras act with noticeable panache.
Half Iquitos watches Fitzcarraldo while he climbs onto an Amazon steamer and sets out with his cronies to the remote rubber fields. Hundreds of citizens from Iquitos, mostly from the well-to-do middle class, have been put into fine turn-of-the-century costumes made in local tailor shops specifically for the film.
The steeply sloping promenade with its many colorful costumed women and men offers a spruced-up, cheerful picture. The Molly Aida is about to go down. The band on the steep bank begins to play a jigsaw Creole farewell march. Duke asks for rest in the rainforest.
As the afternoon draws up lazily, all the scenes are in the box. Thomas Mauch turns off his camera and is enthusiastically applauded by the locals. Werner Herzog also claps, facing the extras. The shooting day is like a happy folk festival, and every one of the more than a thousand people sees himself as a little movie star this Sunday.
The adoption of the surrounding extras is done by Herzog by a handshake. Next to me is Mick Jagger and he too is in raptures.
Find out more:
Do you want to explore more about the world’s strangest and most fascinating destinations? Do you want to read more about my decades of experiences while traveling the world? Then maybe you’re interested in checking out my blog Notes and Notes from the Road.
Note: This article previously appeared on Notes and Notes from the Road.
Cover photo: Flickr