“In the dynamical sublime there is the sense of annihilation of the sensible self as the imagination tries to comprehend a vast might. This power of nature threatens us but through the resistance of reason to such sensible annihilation, the subject feels a pleasure …” -Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment [translated, paraphrased]
In describing a meeting with skeptical investors upon the repeated failures of the Fitzcarraldo production, Werner Herzog describes what fuels his indomitable obsession. If there ever was any doubt that the production of Fitzcarraldo would trudge on, its clumsy momentum and all, Herzog shatters it by articulating the nature of his drive:
“I don’t want to be a man without dreams.” -Herzog, Burden of Dreams
He spits out those words with the look of a man who cannot imagine otherwise. What, then, is the substance of these “dreams”? And, for that matter, how did these “dreams” manifest itself in the form that it did, in the form of Fitzcarraldo?
Immanuel Kant speaks of the great “dynamical sublime” force that resides within nature. Fitzcarraldo is Herzog’s own direct challenge to the “dynamically sublime,” which he finds both beautiful and terrifying. Having chosen the prosperous Amazon rainforests as his point of battle, Herzog assures that his struggle will be awash with overwhelming juxtapositions of the magnificent and the horrific.
Herzog often speaks of the “ecstasy of truth” in relation to what he refers to as the “accountant’s facts.” To get at a deeper sense of truth, Herzog argues, one must look past facts (even manipulate or discard them, at times). The following quote, (from an exasperated Herzog, having experienced yet another setback in the jungle) more than any enumeration of facts and events could, illustrates the extent of the Amazon’s great ‘wrath’ – which Herzog had to endure, in the grand chase for his dreams.
“It is the harmony of… overwhelming and collective murder. And we in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle – Uh, we in comparison to that enormous articulation – we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban… novel… a cheap novel.” -Herzog on the Jungle, Burden of Dreams
When one of the three boats used to portray the indomitable Molly Aida finally peaks its way over onto the summit of the mountain, pointed towards the sky, struggling to inch its weighty mass over the edge of the mountaintop, I see flashes of Herzog’s defiance. And the image that appears in my head is quite clear – this is Herzog flipping the proverbial bird (or boat, in this case), a giant “Fuck you, I did it!” – one man’s defiance reaching its pinnacle. Through the countless obstacles Herzog had faced in his insistence of actually pulling the 30-ton steamship over the mountain, rather than accepting such a “sensible annihilation” of his dreams in a practical manner; the film-maker did not budge, refusing to let the pleasure of such defeat (as Kant would have it) be the sole legacy of the great monstrous dream that Fitzcarraldo had become. The cheap, suburban novel had, at least momentarily, achieved extraordinary success.
However, it would once again be humbled, but with Herzog’s blessing, this time. Perhaps in his search for the “ecstatic truth,” though the forces that be in the Amazon allow the Molly Aida to navigate up its mountains, Herzog decides that in the end, the jungle should have its way. By instructing the natives to cut the boat loose not long after it had reached the summit, Herzog willfully acknowledges his respect for the jungle. By such willful surrender, the ambitious film-maker, who had, up to that point, declared war on the jungle, acquiesces, and relinquishes his “bad pronunciations” and “half-finished sentences” to the great, formless tome of the “dynamical sublime.”
Herzog ends the same maniacal rant on nature (depicted above) with this confession:
“There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it, I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment.” -Herzog, Burden of Dreams
Finally, Kant, in describing the effect of the sublime on the soul, seemingly gets to the essence of Herzog’s struggles in Fitzcarraldo:
“(the sublime) raises the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range and allow us to discover in ourselves an ability to resist which is of a quite different kind…” -Kant, Critique of Judgment