In Les Blank’s 1982 Burden of Dreams, a documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, director Werner Herzog delivers these lines to camera: “The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain . . . 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 judgement.”

The line between singing and screeching (and harmony and disharmony) is continually played with throughout the film, particularly when it comes to opera, the ostensible root of Fitzcarraldo’s madness: it is inspired by his love of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso that he dreams of building an opera house in Iquitos, forming the film’s main plot. Herzog himself had an intense relationship with music after being humiliated by a music teacher at school, after which he listened to no music at all for several years. Opera represents a kind of mannered aristocratic artistry, in contrast to the jungle’s verdant wildness, but in fact it’s often used in the film to escalate the action to a warbling (and incoherent) hysteria.

Yellow-haired blue-eyed Klaus Kinski gives a deranged and exquisite performance as the titular Fitzcarraldo, the rubber baron who becomes obsessed with the possibility of expanding his rubber fields all over the Peruvian Amazon. Meanwhile, off-camera Kinski’s behaviour was so erratic and aggressive that the indigenous people involved in the film, the Aguaruna, reputedly made an offer to Herzog to dispatch him.

Much of the film’s potency arises from the fact that Herzog’s cinematic vision was as extravagantly ambitious and insane as Fitzcarraldo’s, particularly when it came to actually pulling a 320-ton steamer over the mountainside, a stunt performed with no special affects. Herzog well understood the task at hand, calling himself a “Conquistador of the Useless”. But Herzog’s concentration on this one brute fact – the need to move the ship over the mountain – lends the film a Sisyphean weight, allows it to expand to the limits of its own mythology, becomes a parable for both the awful uselessness and high drama of the cinematic endeavour.

More unconformable is the film’s negotiation with colonialist extraction, which were arguably replicated in its production. Reportedly, several indigenous people employed as labourers were injured and killed during the making of the film, and after Herzog built a village on Aguaruna land without requesting permission from the tribal council, Aguaruna men burned down the film set in December 1979. The rusting skeleton of the steamer still rests in the Peruvian jungle, a testament to the bizarre mystical experience of its production, and the impermanence of the ambitions of men. Fitzcarraldo is Herzog’s most magnificent film, flawed and towering; Roger Ebert writing at the time it was released concluded that it was “imperfect, but transcendent”.

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