2. Opera, Aesthetic Violence, and the Imposition of Modernity: Fitzcarraldo
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56 Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), set in the Peruvian Amazon sometime near the turn of the last century, tells the story of an Irishman of uncertain class standing, a passionate lover of opera who wants to build an opera house in the frontier town of Iquitos—a theater to rival the opera house in Manaus, the product of European rubber-baron largesse.1 Fitzcarraldo intends for Caruso to inaugurate his theater. First, however, he’s got to make some money. In the remote jungle, far from Iquitos, there lies a heretofore inaccessible and vast tract of land rich in rubber trees. One impediment stands in his way of reaching it, the wickedly impassable Pongo das Mortes rapids, deep in a gorge of the Ucayali River, an Amazon tributary. Fitzcarraldo hopes to overcome this challenge by first traveling upstream on the Pachitea River, another Amazon tributary that closely parallels the Ucayali; indeed, at one point the two rivers virtually meet, save for a steep hill separating them. Fitzcarraldo will pull hisriverboatupthishillanddowntheotherside,therebyreachingtheUcayali.Bythismeans, having bypassed the rapids, he will then steam downstream to his rubber-tree tract and its awaiting fortune. The engineering challenge of moving a 350-ton riverboat overland is surpassed only by the challenge of pacifying a dangerously hostile indigenous population.2 The raison d’être of the endeavor is opera, and the means to this end is opera as well; not only does opera provide the inspiration to meet the engineering challenge, but it also, and more importantly, will be the means by which the Indians are (temporarily) subdued. 2 OPERA, AESTHETIC VIOLENCE, AND THE IMPOSITION OF MODERNITY Fitzcarraldo I consider opera a universe all its own . . . a complete world, a cosmos transformed into music. WERNER HERZOG, HERZOG ON HERZOG The operatic world is, whatever else, a world of magic invocations. SIEGFRIED KRACAUER, THEORY OF FILM: THE REDEMPTION OF PHYSICAL REALITY O p e r a , a e s t h e t i c V i O l e n c e , a n d M O d e r n i t y • 57 MUSICS AND SOUND The film employs four kinds of music, two of which are used nondiegetically and two diegetically, with virtually no overlap between the pairs. The principal nondiegetic music is provided by a purpose-composed score by Florian Fricke and his ensemble, Popol Vuh, a band that is also responsible for the music in several of Herzog’s other films, including Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972) and Nosferatu—Phantom der Nacht (1979). Popol Vuh’s music comes off as a kind of ambient wall of sound whose acoustic vastness is matched by the vagueness of its cultural sources. The rampantly hybrid (not to say pastiche) quality of the music, something like New Age meets Orff, has an air of the ritualistic tempered with an off-the-shelf mysteriousness that is at once worldly and not. The music effects timelessness, if only on account of the mix of sounds that cancel out historical and cultural specificity. Throughout the film Herzog uses Popol Vuh’s music as a discursive accompaniment to nature, nearly always represented in dire opposition to culture. The only other nondiegetic music in the film is heard fleetingly. When the riverboat heads upriver for its fateful encounter with “nature”—setting out for, and later departing from, the last European settlement, a missionary outpost—brief excerpts from Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung play softly as background accompaniment.3 The choice is apt, to the extent that Fitzcarraldo has now entered into the lived space of the Indians. As Fitzcarraldo proceeds, the threat of physical Tod becomes increasingly real; but the actual Tod will be that of Fitzcarraldo’s dream, which becomes the inadvertent vehicle for the Verklärung of the Indians’ dream, one entirely different from his. As the riverboat leaves the mission outpost, hence approaches the last remnant of “civilization,” Strauss’s music is accompanied by a thunderstorm and lightning as the sky darkens and the sun sets. In short, the trope announced by the composition’s title is both aurally and visually overdetermined. Throughout the film, Fricke’s nondiegetic score is often abruptly intercut with the diegetic music principally provided by Italian opera. These two sound masses, radically different from one another, establish an acoustic binary that in turn underscores the design of the film’s nature/culture narrative. Herzog also uses small bits of indigenous and pseudo-indigenous music, but it’s opera that...


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Subject Headings

  • Music -- Philosophy and aesthetics.
  • Modernism (Music) -- History -- 20th century.
  • Opera -- Social aspects.
  • Motion pictures -- Social aspects.
  • Sound recordings -- Social aspects.
  • Nature in music.
  • Nature in motion pictures.
  • Puccini, Giacomo, 1858-1924. Fanciulla del West.
  • Fitzcarraldo (Motion picture).
  • Days of heaven (Motion picture).
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