Colonial Forestry: Sylvan Politics in Werner Herzog's Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo Author(s): Lutz P.

Koepnick Source: New German Critique, No. 60, Special Issue on German Film History (Autumn, 1993), pp. 133-159 Published by: New German Critique Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/488669 Accessed: 07/11/2010 23:38
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=duke. Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

Duke University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to New German Critique.

http://www.jstor.org

ColonialForestry: SylvanPoliticsin

WernerHerzog's Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo Lutz P. Koepnick
I am the spectacle in the forest.
Fitzcarraldo

I his New Science(1744) Giambattista Vico invoked the dense forests In of prehistory to narrate a curious myth about the origins of Western civilization. In Vico's allegory, the "Tale of the Giants," civilization began when the prehistoric monsters cleared the amorphous chaos of the primeval forest and took up residence in a clearing. Since Western civilization has, in fact, from the time of the last arctic freeze "literally cleared its space in the midst of the forest,"' Vico's tale renders the clearing as the site from which all human institutions originated. It was only by cutting the trees that the giants could establish religious belief systems because open spaces permitted undistorted gazes at the heavens
1. Robert Pogue Harrison, borests:lhe Shadow of Civilization (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1992) ix. Although Harrison's neo-Heideggerian ecology anld his underlying narrative of clearing and civilization, space-of-dwelling and environillent, call for critical evaluationls, IlIy paper is indebted to Harrison's book as it provided at this point that the soixle of the sylvan xilaterial I use here. It is worth Ixientioning troublesomile contradictions of Herzog's own sylvan politics, which I consider at the end of the paper, can be seen as a case in point for the reductionist tendencies inherent in Heidegger's as well as Harrison's juxtaposition of civilization and nature, clearing and forest. Herzog crudely politicizes this narrative only to end up in the trap of his own green reductionisil. Herzog's aporetic stand, then, could testify to the theoretical and political naivete! of Harrison's (and Heidegger's) ontology, a discussion that would have clearly exploded the limilits of this paper.

133

134

ColonialForestry

and their divine residents. Only clearings allowed for the ceremony of marriage and the consecration of family bonds. Thus, in clearings, larger social networks were established. Finally, it was only by means of carving a niche into the sylvan darkness that the giants could bury their dead and begin to worship death, thus building the foundations for individual and collective experiences, memories, and historical consciousness. According to Vico, the origin of Western civilization lies in the attempt to draw boundaries between the space of human dwelling and the forest. Although the sylvan fringe of civilization marks a focal position in the poetic imagination of the West, culture and human history is what the forest is not: the institutional domain of civilization defines itselt constantly against the arboreal other at its edges. For Vico, to be civilized means not only to distinguish between clearing and forest, to recognize and corroborate the initial act of demarcation, but also to respect the otherness of the forest as a semantic reference point, as a cultural memory bank of civilization and its creative potential. Following Vico's narrative, however, the clearings expand dramatically in the course of civilization, to the extent that the giants' successors neglect the very limits that initiated their history in the first place. Espousing an excessive use of instrumental reason and abstraction, Western civilization loses sight of the forest as its necessary other and thus effaces its own origin and the source of its cultural identity. At the core of urban Enlightenment, Vico detects the roots of a new barbarism, a barbarism of abstract reflection that will not only foster a future age of cynicism and civil war, but also transform history, the clearing, into nature again. Long before the advent of acid rain and massive detorestation, Vico contends that at the end of history the peoples "shall turn their cities into forests and the forests into dens and lairs of men."2 In what follows, I trace the encounter of the imperialist, reforested West with the sylvan otherness of the Peruvian jungle in Werner Herzog's films Aguirre,the WrathoJGod (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). In both films, Herzog's colonial heroes confront and enter the primeval forest of the Amazon not in the posture of Vico's giants, but rather as Promethean rebels turning away from a civilization whose urban centers have transformed into forests again. Aguirre, however, in his megalomaniac rebellion against the Spanish crown and the divine order, remains ensnared in the Western invention and construction of the South
2. Gialmbattista Vico, lhe New Science, tranls. Thl'lomas Goddard Bergil and Max Harold Fisch (Ithaca aind London: Coriell UP, 1968) 424.

Lutz P Koepnick

135

American rain forest, whereas Fitzcarraldo, in his operatic venture to partake of the rubber-boom around 1900, taills victim to his peculiar modern and scientific methods of forestry. In very different ways, I will argue, both films stage colonial enterprises destined to tail due to the heroes' inability to escape their Western imagination, to relate to the semantic multiplicity of the jungle, and to demarcate the kind of boundaries that provide for personal and collective identities in the first place. Whereas Aguirre in the last scene ends up caught in the deathly circles of the camera and his own madness, Fitzcarraldo embraces Italian opera as the only path of redemption through the abyss separating Western forestry and the reality of the jungle. Although in many of Herzog's films landscapes appear as prehistoric sites, visually transfixed in conditions prior to any human intervention, their cinematic invocation involves them in an animistic grammar of representation. Many times over, critics have emphasized the expressionistic heritage at work in Herzog's mise-en-scene: the natural environment serves as a symbolic expression, a metaphorical comment, a leitmotif, or even as a metonymical extension of the character's inner situation. To the extent that natural imagery assumes signitying functions within his narratives, Herzog promotes nature to the role of an actor in and of itself.3 Although they often show heroes strangely cut oilfft from any interaction with their natural environment,4 Herzog's films tend to represent nature as a text abounding with inscriptions of human desire. Within Herzog's expressionist vocabulary of nature, however, the jungle seems to denote a text that frustrates all hermeneutic efforts from the outset; with course brutality, the chaotic diversity of the rain forest exposes the systematic inappropriateness of Western routines of cognition and ordering. In other words, despite its animistic enactment
3. Unfortunately, mlany critics tend to fall prey to tile llagic of Herzog's visual spectacles and thus lose the kind of critical distance necessary to decipher the narrative function of Ilature imilagery in Herzog's filhis. The following colnmIlenltdisplays one critic's captivation by Herzog's calculated flirts with prehlistoiy: "Not even Bergman endows his landscape with the emiiotioilal and theilnatic significance Ilmanaged by Herzog. He uses colmplex camiiera and laboratory work, an extraordinary eye amid a imore extraordinary patience, waiting days for the proper quality of fog. The result, somleh~ow, is that Herzog's landscapes strike us with tile kind of charges and inagical significance that our priimitive forbearers inay once have felt." Richard Eder, "A New Visionary in German Filims," "IheNew YorkTtimes10 July 1977: 26. 4. Thioias Elsaesser, Antli#opologist's "A Eye: Wherethe GreenAnts Dream," lthe Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and Hislorv, ed. Timothy Corrigan (New York and London: Methluen, 1986) 147.

136

ColonialForestry

of desire, the jungle rejects any attempt to be read, mastered, or even represented. As it reduces human beings to insignificant receptacles of what will always escape their grasp, Herzog's rain torest delineates a unique training ground for sentiments of sublime terror.5 In Les Blank's Burdenof Dreams (1982), the acclaimed documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo,Herzog himself has testified to the sublime stature of the tropical torest. Positioned in front of ajungle setting, Herzog declares with traces of sell-irony: Taking a close look at what's around us, there is a sort of harmony, it is the harmony of overwhelming collective murder, and we in comparison to the articulatevileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle, we in comparison to that enormous articulation, we only sound like badly pronounced and half finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel. And we have to become humble in front of this misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth, and overwhelming lack of order. In face of the irreducible entropy of the forest, the imperial gazes of Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo impede any such teelings of humbleness. Herzog's Amazon films not only expose colonial practices by mapping the visual and tactile strategies that are employed when Western civilization meets the jungle, but also depict colonialism as an inadequate system of representation and understanding, one that systematically leads astray when used to navigate action amidst the erotic spectacle of nature. As a consequence, both films not only describe colonialism as the absence of aesthetic sublimation in view of the random violence of nature, but render the failure to colonize the forest a result of a blind spot in the center of the colonial gaze itself. As a director relying of the possibilities not only of representing, but of directing nature,6 Herzog seeks to unmask the mechanisms by which Dorado and Fitzcarraldo's idiosyncratic rubber enterprise collapse in the
5. For further analyses of the sublimex in Herzog's work, see Brigitte Peucker, "Werner Herzog: Inl Quest of the Sublimle," New GermanFilmmakers,ed. Klaus Phillips (New York: Unlga-, 1984) 168-194; Alan Singer, "Corliprehendinig Appearances: Werner Herzog's Ironic Sublimie," Corrigan 183-205. 6. Asked about the function of animlals inl his filIns, Herzog mIiaintainedin 1976: "Yes, I direct animrals and I also claiml that you canl direct a landscape" (Jonlatllan Cott, "Signs of Life," Rolling Stone 18 Nov. 1976: 54); see also Jan-Chlristopher Horak, "W. H. or tihe Mysteries of Walking on Ice," Corrigan 32-33.

colonialismfalls into its own trap:Aguirre's imperialist quest for El

Lutz P Koepnick

137

very gap both heroes establish between the obscenity of the forest and

the orders that are supposed to read and master it. Unable to escape their own cultural heritage, Herzog's adventurers remain on this side of that which the West has summoned over centuries to reduce the natural complexity and semantic diversity of the forest. In both films, then, the colonial endeavors fail not simply because of a lack of will and energy, but rather because imperial uses of power inevitably go awry. Paradoxical though it may seem, however, as the controversies around the production of Fitzcarraldo shown,7Herzog at once comhave the aporeticshortsightednessof the colonial gaze and yet in his prehends role as an auteur director, he reproduces the instrumentallogic of his hero. Even though Herzog's film text, as I argue, exposes colonialism as a system of perception and knowledge that misconstrues the possibilities of directing nature, the making of the film repeats Fitzcarraldo's colonialist procedures of ordering space. In spite of Herzog's critical distance to his own eccentric project, Fitzcarraldo'sbattle with the elements and his attempt to unlock the Amazon for the blessings of Western culture are also Herzog's own grand drama, his grand cinematic opera. Because Herzog's film texts, then, seem to know more than their author, it is primarilyan inquiry into Aguirre's and Fitzcarraldo's sylvan imagination rather than an analysis of Herzog's own exploitation of the Amazon as an auteur director, that lies at the heart of the following discussion.
II

Since the early days of colonization, Europe depicted South America as mere nature, as "an unclaimed and timeless space occupied by plants and creatures(some of them human), but not organized by societies and economies; a world whose only history was the one about to begin."8
7. Les Blank's documlentaiy filxmI Burden of Dreams iniforms exhaustingly about the plethora of accusation brought against Herzog's nleocolonialist presence and lastiing trace iil the Peruvian junlgle, allowiilg us to see the preconlditions, effects, anld conlsequeilces of Herzog's cilematic project ~4tzcarraldoiin a ilore critical light. In a seilse, however, Blanlk's documenltary remaiils as much tied to Herzog's eiltire eiltexprise as the auteur director Herzog reilders Fitzcarraldo's battle his owil spectacle. For more oni Herzog's authorial colonlialism, see also the article "Werner Herzog und die Indianler," Kircheund bilm 35.4 (April 1982): A-E; Andreas Rosta, ed., Werner Herzog in Bamberg(Bamberg: Uniiversitiit Bamiberg, 1986), a public debate inl which Herzog faces passionate critics who attack his colonlial fantasies aild practices; as well as Niila Gladitz's 1984 documentary Land of Billerness and Pride. 8. Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyves: Havel Writing and Transculturation (Lonldonl aild New York: Routledge, 1992) 126.

138

ColonialForestry

A world whose absence of history and cultural configurations, whose lavish naturalness also seemed to justity the European penetration and exploitation ot its tropical torests, its vast interior plains, its ragged snow-capped sierras. Not surprisingly, many travel accounts ot the sixteenth and seventeenth century celebrated the European presence as a means by which to tinge the prehistoric and precultural scenes ot South America with the esteemed colorations of linear, historical time. Echoes of this early imagination ot South America reverberate even in nineteenth- and twentieth-century travel descriptions and narratives of appropriation. The writings of Alexander von Humboldt in particular rejuvenated and coditied tor the industrial world the image ot

South America as primordial nature and thus reinscribed the absence of indigenous history, culture, and identity in the European maps ot Peru, Venezuela, or Brazil.Although Humboldt's texts deploy narrative strategies that dramatize and, hence, temporalize the description ot American landscapes, his representations ot the new continent - the Amazon torests, the Argentine prairies, and the Andean mountains canonize a timeless South America.Moreover, Humboldt even adopted the alleged lack ot human history and culturalidentityas a scientificcriterion ot classification.Consider, for example, the famous portraitand der definition of the tropical torest in Humboldt's Ansichten Natur[Views Nature (1807)]: of
In the strictestsense of the word, this area deserves the name primeval forest [Urwald] , a name that has often been abused in recent times. Primeval forest, primeval times, and primeval peoples are fairly vague concepts, mostly with relative contents. If we call every wild wood with a dense growth of trees and untouched by man's destroying hand a primeval forest, then this phenomenon may be found in many parts of the moderate and cold zone. However, if its character lies in impenetrability, the impossibility of clearing a long path between trees of eight to twelve feet in diameter with an axe, then the primeval forest may be found only in the tropics. Also, it is not always the rope-like, entwining, climbing creepers (lianas) that - as one fancies in Europe - constitute this impenetrability. Lianas often only form a very small mass of the undergrowth. The main impediments are shrub-like plants that fill all the in between space, in a zone where everything becomes like wood that covers the ground.9
9. Alexanuder von Humlboldt, "Das laclidichle Tierlebenl iin Urwald," Ansidden der Nalur (Danristadt: Wissenschaftliclhe Buchgesellschlaft, 1987) 159; iy tranlslatioil.

Lutz P Koepnick

139

According to Humboldt, what defines the Amazon jungle as a primeval forest is the impossibility of penetrating its chaotic thicket and of overcoming its natural obstacles. Humboldt describes the tropical rain forest as an autopoetic system; like an ever-hungry vampire, it absorbs everything into its gigantic, indecipherable structure and transtorms it into wood. By definition, the jungle delimits a space in which one cannot expect to find human beings, let alone integrated dwellings or autonomous societies, for Humboldt positions the Amazon jungle as a radical other of Western civilization and of humanity in general. Claiming the forest's very nature defies any attempt to cut a clearing, to stake out a space for human abodes, and to clear the ground for social institutions, Humboldt once again denies indigenous cultures a proper locus in the charts he draws of territories that are much larger than his own homeland. In AguirreHerzog literally stages colonialism's struggle with its own invention of South America as mere nature. At the center of the film is not so much the confrontation of Aguirre's party with the chaotic jungle or the native population, but rather the conquistadors' confinement in traditional European constructions of the Amazon as a terrain void of time and cultural configurations. Just as Humboldt, and a plethora of Spanish colonialists before him, sketched South America as an uninhabited and prehistoric territory, Aguirre envisions El Dorado as a cleared and unclaimed realm amidst the jungle where civilization has already triumphed over nature long before the imperialists have ever arrived. As much a mirage at the beginning as at the end of Aguirre's voyage, El Dorado denotes an imagined space removed from natural terrors, yet emptied of native populations and traces of their history: a phantasmagorical image of Eden transplanted into the tropical rain forest. Although poisoned arrows kill the ratting troops one after another, Indians remain invisible in the film. In the wandering eyes of the Spanish soldiers, the indigenous people are present through their absence alone; it is only by means of synecdochic extensions, in the form of arrows, huts, screams, and drumming, that the natives make their existence perceptible to the limited vision of the soldiers. In one briet scene in which Aguirre's men make contact with two canoeing Indians and even allow them to board the ratt, the colonial encounter seems only possible because both Indians appear separated from their tribal community; as isolated and aimless jungle nomads, the couple allows the Spanish to see and construct them initially as Amazonian doubles

140

ColonialForestry

of Adam and Eve. At first glance a rather confusing sequence, Herzog creates a scene in which we look at the conquistadors looking at the natives; what the scene presents is not an inserted anthropological documentary, but a filmic reconstruction of colonial ethnography. While the words of the Indians, though interpreted, remain neither heard nor comprehended, their pastoral appearances and bodily features - pictured, first, through slow camera movements, then through a lengthy medium close-up of the male Indian - expose them as welcome objects of colonial Christianization, Imperial contact zones, however, yield surprises. As soon as the male Indian disappoints the colonial presumptions and, in the eyes of Aguirre's troop, ridicules the bible, he is murdered: he who strays from preestablished paths of transculturation and transgresses the image of the noble savage, forfeits his right to exist. True to their invention of the tropical jungle, the Spaniards' tearless interaction with individual jungle migrants in the film only testifies to their cognitive denial of the existence of larger social organizations in South America. Herzog's film unmasks the internal limitations of this colonial imagination precisely in those moments when Aguirre's rafters face real enemies, not pastoral travelers. For the Spaniards only see the Indians as mirages in motion, as silhouettes and specters that briefly appear along the banks of the river, hastily stepping out of the amorphous darkness of the forest only to disappear at the very moment of their possible recognition. In the eyes of the Spaniards, the fleeting presence of the Indians allows for the possibility of rendering them absent as a social group and thus reaffirming their expectation. Because the native Indians never differentiate themselves from the forest, never achieve contour before the jungle's undefined anarchy, they are not perceived as members of an integrated political body, but rather as hostile elongations of the disorganized natural environment. In a highly instructive sequence shortly before the encounter with the Indian canoeists, the colonial schism yields comical, albeit lethal effects. This scene portrays the first real skirmish between Aguirre's men and the Indians, between the raft and the forest. While the boat glides slowly down the river, the camera follows the thick jungle scenery at the banks of the river with motionless, terrifying patience. A series of brief close-ups identify this sequence with the point-of-view of the crew and its leader, Aguirre, played by Klaus Kinski, who is presented ingeniously in a moment of distracted concentration, anxiously gazing at the trees. When a number of Indians suddenly appear at the

Lutz P Koepnick

141

edge of the forest and attack the raft, the Spaniards at first remain

transfixed in voyeuristic postures: no panic, no screaming, no shooting. It requires the death of a soldier to puncture their optical paralysis and to remobilize the troops. Their subsequent, belated interactions, however, characterize the Spaniards as true relatives of Don Quixote. Because Aguirre's men have refused to recognize the Indians as possessing an organized culture in the first place, perceiving them instead as mere extensions of the prehistoric forest, they now fire randomly at the trees, only in order to bear testimony to the blind spot that clouds

the center of their colonial gaze: imperial power here presents itself in
a farcical performance. "We lose men," Gaspar de Carvajal despairingly asserts toward the end of the film, "but we never see the enemy." Spaniards die not because of a shortage of supplies nor as a consequence of the Indian at-

tacks, but rather because of the distortions of their colonial optics. But
the fact that they cannot see the natives only parallels their initial expectation; the ocular absence of an opponent correlates with the colonial invention of the Amazon. The more the conquistadors try to capture the enemy in their colonial imagination of the forest, however, the more they fall victim to illusions and hallucinations that petrify them once the foe becomes visible and strikes. Ensnared in the Western invention of the Amazon, the Spaniards transform the jungle into a hostile fetish. Floating on the open river, yet in fact circling in the dense forest of their imperial visions, they project feelings of fear and terror onto the physiognomy of the jungle: not Indians but trees seem to obstruct the colonial enterprise. In a number of scenes, Herzog explores with both intriguing subtlety and comical overtones the Spaniard's fetishization of the forest. Consider, for example, the trek of the rescue troop to the circling float at an early point in the rafting trip. After a long march through the jungle, the men find their comrades lying dead on the boat with two Indian oarsmen and one Spaniard mysteriously missing. Upon their return, the leader of the group advises his soldiers with gravity: "Keep your eyes open!" Ironically, the next shot presents a close-up of the black slave Okello on the other side of the river, the only member of the whole group endowed with visionary energies and a sharp sense of perception.10 In contrast to Okello, who from the opposite bank seems
10. In a number of sequences, Okello is presented as a seer, a recurring trope in

142

ColonialForestry

more able to comprehend the world around him, the returning soldiers anxiously open their eyes to no avail. Although they take great precautions, directing their guns at the impenetrable thicket surrounding them, one of the soldiers gets caught in a trap and is whisked away upside down out of the upper edge of the frame. Just as his comrades first fail to notice his literal consumption through the upper tiers of the tropical forest, only a muted scream indicates his death to the spectator: once having vanished the soldier enters a realm which is off-limits to representation. After a moment, a second soldier returns to the site of the incident, peering around in terror, finally discovering his comrade somewhere in the trees above. Although the camera in the very next shot partakes of this second soldier's horror and tollows him with hysterical movements through the forest, it disappoints any spectator whose expectations have been shaped by Hollywood horror films. Instead of assuming the second soldier's point-of-view, instead of tilting upward and displaying his slaughtered companion, the camera remains horizontal and concentrates on the witness's reactions in a close-up. Only a hardly visible blood stain on his helmet signifies what mainstream cinema would have presented in a graphic spectacle of blood and gore. The withholding of a reverse shot, however, not only bespeaks the Spaniards' resistance to see what they see, their ultimate inability to keep their eyes open; it also underscores their animistic perception of the forest as an absorbing, gruesome, unpredictable other against which any defense seems useless. In a later scene, Inez de Atienze, Ursua's mistress, similarly vanishes into the forest like a saint accepting her ritual sacrifice," paralleling this sequence in which the forest emerges as a terrorist vampire that strikes despite all efforts of concentration and anticipation. Even when all eyes, the Spaniards cannot but tall into the trap of the imported colonial optics.
Herzog's filhls. After Aguirre shoots Ursua, Okello, for ilnstalnce, recognizes that Ursua holds somiethiinig miiysteriousillnhils fist. Ini aniother scenie Okello "sees" that certainl trees are not functional for the constructioni of new floats. Finally, it is Okello who sights the boat inl tile tree toward the end of the filin. 11. Herzog's screenplay presents the best iilterpretation of linez's religious aura and distinction: "between twenlty-five and thirty, noble, giving the faint imipressionl of a imadonnla. Self-coixlposed, liever losing her dignity even inl the greatest mIlisery. UIlobtrusive and very devoted." Werner Herzog, Screenplays:Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Every Main for Himiself and God Against All. Land of Silence and Darkness, trails. Alan Greenberg anmid Martje Herzog (New York: Taniaiul Press, 1980) 9.

Lutz P Koepnick

14_3

III Colonial travel literature abounds with the rhetorical trope and topos which Mary Pratt has labeled the "monarch-of-all-I-survey scene."12 Employed when colonial explorers and adventurous travelers position themselves at privileged vista points, this stylistic element of colonial discourse often identifies the unfolding of a stretch of land which has never been seen with a gesture of imperial appropriation. Transforming the foreign territory into an aesthetic artifact, the monarch-of-all-I-survey scene involves "particularly explicit interaction between aesthetics and ideology in what one might call a rhetoric of presence."'13 Seen from an elevated, detached vantage point, the alien space is at once rendered as a beautiful painting and stripped of its threatening otherness, as well as produced as a colonial space,'4 unlocked for the metropolitan devices of subordination and exploitation. In monarch-of-all-I-survey scenes, the gaze is political through and through, a pure expression of colonial power. As an overture and leitmotif for the rest of the film, the first titteen minutes of Herzog's Aguirre explain the crumbling of colonial power through the loss of imperial vista points. First hailed by Gaspar de Carvajal as "legendary," the jungle provides no access to sublime positions; it disempowers systematically the colonial gaze and thus the interaction of aesthetic and ideological tropes which constitute the imperial optics of presence. The first sequence of Aguirreshows the soldiers' eastward descent from the Peruvian Andes down into the Amazon jungle, that is to say the voyage from the highlands of colonial power and surveyance to the ocular thicket of the forest. A spectacular aerial shot opens the scene, peeking through a scattered layer of clouds hovering over and between steep slopes in the midst of which the spectator must search to recognize the ant-like caravan of human beings. Reminiscent of Chinese landscape paintings that transtix dwartish human bodies in immense natural settings, this first scene offers a spectacle of nature from a sublime vista point that seems to lie outside nature's own topography. Far trom originating in a cosmic void, however, as
12. 13. 14. Pratt 201-227. Pratt 205. Johnl K. Noyes examines in further detail such spatial episteiies

with regard to German encounters with Africa in "Wide Open Spaces and the Hunger
for Lald: Production of Space in the German Colonial Novel," Fauliline: Interdisciplito naly Approaches German Sludies 1 (1992): 103-117.

of colonialisiml

144

ColonialForestry

Dana Benelli has described it,15 the aerial perspective and extreme long shots at the beginning assume and elongate the imperial viewpoint Pizzaro's men want to import to this yet unexplored and unmapped area. Just as the camera allies with the gaze of Adolf Hitler as he descends through the clouds to his subjects in the opening seoJf quence of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph the Will, the beginning of Aguirre spies on the aesthetic ideology of colonialism and its own self-perception, the interaction of surveyance and power, of aesthetics and domination, of sublime optics and control.'6 Once at the bottom of the jungle, the colonial bearers of the gaze no longer see the forest for the trees: the tropical thicket immediately obfuscates both their imperial eyes and the lens of the camera. An erratic explosion of a cannon followed by a tree collapsing into the river signal the troops' arrival at the bottom - and provide a prelude to the fall of colonialism that the spectator will witness throughout the rest of the film.17 Circular movements prevail already in the tirst forest sequences, ovements which anticipate the conclusion of the film. Pizarro's horse turns in circles, its noble rider is caught in a branch, rips it out, yet fails to shake it off, and thus continues riding ridiculously encircled with leaves. Unaccustomed to the wet climate of the lowlands, the Indian slaves falter one after another, weakened by the flu. As they face the likelihood of a stand-off, the Spanish soldiers respond with frenzied motion
15. Dana Benelli, "The Cosmos and Its Discontents," Coriganl 92-94. 16. Clearly dithe spectacular opening shot ofAguirre bears multiple codes and references. One mIight trace Herzog's elevated, panoramic perspective back to the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, a Romlantic heritage in Herzog that imanifests itself inl another scene as well, showing Gaspar de Carvajal standing at the edge of the river like Friedrich's contemplative monk at the sea. Additionally, overt references to Fanck's mountain filIls callnhardly be denied, in particular if one considers the fact that Herzog has gone on to iimakehis own milountain feature, the Dark Glow ofihe Mounlains (1984), starring Alpine hero Reinhold Messner and Hanus 17. In her article "Fact and Fiction: Nature's Endgaine illn Kanninerlander. Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Ihe Wralhof God," Lileralure/Jilm Quarlerly 17.3 (1989): 161-167, Victoria M. Stiles, arguing from an hllistorical perspective, asserts that the very presence of cannons iinAguirre provides an authorial corilnent about the vanity of tile colonial enterprise: "During this descent, one ofithe cannons falls and explodes. The remaining cannon shoots later down-river at randomi into the jungle without any noticeable dailage to the hostile Indians who continue to shower poisoned arrows ol the invaders with lmurderous effect. As a point of information: In Ursua and Aguirre's historical expedition as well as ill the 1540 expedition, various types of guns were used, but no cannons. By including cannons, Herzog brings across his inessage that this show of power is ultimately ineffectual in thllisconfriontation between primitive forces inl nature's stronghold, the jungle and civilized imian" (165).

Lutz P Koepnick

145

and desperate use of violence. No longer resembling an ant-like caravan, the colonial crowd now recalls images of late twentieth-century third world tourism: beer bellies in Hawaiian shirts and high-heeled shoes on their way to acclaimed tropical attractions.Except that in this jungle, there is nothing to see, and the absence of things visible represents the enterprise'sfull catastrophe.Herzog's camerapainstakingly depicts this encounter of forest and colonial might with hectic movements; although not precisely out of focus, the camera often does not fully concentrate on individual activities, allowing them to slip unseen into the space off-screen. Thus, Herzog draws the spectator into this stumbling of the colonial power, forces the viewer to partakeof the very loss of perspective and sublime eyesight the Spaniardssuffer amid the mud
and the chaotic heaps of leaves. Dirt and water on the eye of the camera emphasize this threatening lack of vision, authenticating the impending collapse of the imperial gaze. Already at this early point in Aguirre,Herzog's film exposes the imperial decline: he who cannot see forteits his worldly power. Exploring the intersections of prophesy, hypnosis, and vision,'8 Herzog's Heart of Glass (1976) relates the hero's capacity to foresee the future to his positions in the rural geography. Whether it consists of apocalyptic or redemptive apparitions, Hias's vision seems possible only at privileged points outside the topography of everyday life. In the opening scene, Hias deliberates on a vision of apocalyptic darkness as he is situated high above a floating ocean of clouds, a thundering cascade, and the abyss of the valley: "I look into the distance, to the end of the world." When later confined to a murky prison cell, the seer proclaims the loss of his visionary powers, only to regain them once released and ascending through a light, wintry forest. The final sequence transforms the identity of vista and vision into an object of a prophecy itself, telling a tale of redemption the center of which is occupied by the people of a rocky island and their visual as well as physical exploration of the vast ocean, the edge of the world. Although visionaries through and through, Herzog's colonial heroes in Aguirrelack the kind of vista and contemplative detachment that - according to Herzog's cinematic vocabulary - provide the ground to remain sane and mediate prophesy, expectation, and will with the
18. See Eric Reintschller, "The Politics of Vision: Herzog's Heart of Glass," Corrigan 159-182.

146

ColonialForestry

random imperatives of the present. The Spaniards' apocalypse happens now because their colonial rhetoric of presence levels all ties to the past and eclipses their persistence in waiting for the future. It blindness provides the capacity to see more clearly in Kaspar's Berber tale at the end of EveryManjor Himsei and GodAgainstAll (1974), in Aguirre,by contrast, visions of imperial power blind the eyes and cause Aguirre's men to fall into the gap between the imperial demands of vision and the obtuscated gaze amidst the forest.

IV
According to Vico, religious and social institutions, memory and human history, originate in the clearing; the Spaniards' tetishization of the forest and their blindness, in turn, correlate with their very failure to make history. Whereas they, as Aguirre puts it in the end, believe they are directing history as others direct theater plays, they in tact resemble actors unknowingly put on stage; while they think they are imperial bearers of the gaze, a gaze that appropriates land by mere visual contact, they in tact emerge as objects of the Indians' invisible gaze. In a sense, Aguirre anticipates the inverted ethnology of Herzog's later film Wherethe GreenAnts Dream (1983/4):'9 to the extent that we see the Spaniards looking at the jungle through the distorted tilters of their colonial imagination, we assume the gaze of the Indians, installed somewhere at the tringe of the tropical forest and looking at, indeed looking through, the white colonialists.20
19. See Elsaesser,"Al Anthllopologist'sEye":"Wthere Green Ar1sDreamis . . 11t .not of coinquite as didactic as the simliplicity the fable suggests. Ii contrast to the mllinlinlg which hlasto call inlthe bulldozers to back up its own persistence, and the law to pally, break up a 'lob,' the tribesmienl show the kind of iemiltalagility that iIl a stalemilate of such as exists fromithe outset, becoimes a definite formin wit: they milay doomied as be a tribe, but they survive eveyv concrete situation, like heroes inltile comlic picaresque 11w traditionl.They adjust to their opponents while not ceding their positionl. Il tWhere Green ArnsDream,the Aborigines look at us, the white spectator, and seemito be lookiing through us" (155-156). 20. Just as the inversion of the ethniologicalgaze seemisto positio tilhe spectator iil critical distance to Aguirre'scolonial spectacle, so do curious disjunictions between between visual representationl amnd discursive Carvajal'sdiar-yand the flow of immlages, that the irony, for examnple, provide a sense of distaItiatioin.It is with somtie imediationl diegetic action outlives the author whose diary supposedly provided tlhestory for tihe filim.As both Carvajal'sinlkand his life ruun out, Herzog perplexes his spectator with an overt shift iIl authorial perspective, one that was latent however all alonlg.IIIso doinlg, Herzog's filmireveals tile structural tensions between the visual iininediacy and the inscribed narrative,a disparityof words and imlagesthat allows the spectator to see imodes of seeing anmd behlind the workings of tile colonmialists' cognlitionl.

Lutz P Koepnick

147

The more the imperial eyes of Aguirre's conquistadors appear disempowered, the more they experience how the realm ot history shrinks to the two dozen square meters ot their float and, ot course, later dissolves altogether. Far trom any venture to actively locate the promised clearing ot El Dorado, Aguirre's men perceive the torest growing thicker and thicker around them. Interestingly enough, they feel compelled to burn down an empty settlement at the bank of the river, not because they wish to wipe out an enemy base or to seize a piece of land, but rather in order to erase a provocation ot their colonial vision, to redeem their construction ot Amazonia as mere nature. On the other hand, calculated attempts to penetrate the torest, to cut and inhabit clearings or to appropriate the torest, progressively turn into farce, subverting the very narrative of discovery Aguirre desired to imprint onto his empty map ot South America. Examining the naturalization ot history in the German Trauerspiel, Walter Benjamin has argued that with Baroque drama history enters the scene ot action as writing, that writing mortifies historical time on stage.21 In Aguirre, Herzog's colonial heroes equate writing with making history, only to escape history's inherent temporality altogether. Depicted as practices ot the clearing, writing and reading invoke historical significance and gravity, yet tail to yield the cultural energies originally attributed to them. Consider, for example, Pizzaro's speech proclaiming the separation ot the group, which is recorded in an historical document for later approval by the Council of the Indies. Alter natural obstacles have halted the expedition's progress, Pizzaro assembles his soldiers in an open space of the jungle to reveal and justify his further plans. Although speaking treely, he addresses his tatigued troops with rhetorical skill and dispassionate precision, as it reading trom the very document he will sign at the end ot the sequence. In order

to rationalizethe division and master the threateningstandstillthrough
renewed decisiveness, he merely enacts what the not-yet-written script prescribes as a result ot Pizarro's artificial mode of address, his provocative controntational style. Historical action assumes the character ot a mere simulation, a pastiche.22 Frequent gazes directly into the camera

Tiedemainl

Gesammelte des dutsctert 'rauerspiels. Schr/ier, eds. Rolf Beij•uinii, Ursprung mid Henrlaini Schweppeidiluser, vol. 1 (Fauilkfurta/M.: Sulnkaiilp, 1991) 353. 22. Here, of course, 1 iilake use of Fredric Jailnesoil's termliilology. Janmiesoil tries to describe a process of copying and imlitationl that iinocks the very notion of an original, a ilode of imiiitation i which some original no longer exists: "Pastiche is, like

21.

Walter

148

ColonialForestry

additionally testily to Pizarro's transformation of colonial politics into a calculated spectacle. As if trained in twentieth-century media politics, Pizarro claims a kind of charismatic leadership that is not merely recorded by, but produced for the eye of the camera, staged for possible spectators. Not surprisingly, however, the aesthetic confusion of historical act with its recording and interpretation subverts the rejuvenation Pizarro seeks to invoke; as usual, the instantaneous monumentalization of history overwrites the possibilities of authentic agency and historical consciousness. Enveloped by the forest, Pizzaro casts history into the mold of a timeless icon; yet to the degree that he performs history in front of the implied eyes of posterity, historical action loses its inner dynamic, its tenacity and resolve. As theater, the Spanish will to domination cannot but fail to surmount the violence of nature and define a cultural identity against the overwhelming power of the jungle. Ironically, Pizarro stages his historical spectacle in a clearing that has been mysteriously cut prior to the Spaniards' arrival: a space merely borrowed from the very civilization whose existence the colonial imagination denies. In contrast to Vico's tale of the giants, Pizarro's theatrical attempt to inhabit this clearing also results in a history of separation rather than one of cultural unitication. Here and throughout the entire film, then, Herzog leaves no doubt about the abyss between the colonial display of power and the contingencies of the natural environment. A brief, seemingly incidental shot at the end of the sequence exposes with relentless lucidity this gap and the element of theatricality at the center of colonialism's will to history and domination. In order to sign the document and authenticate his decision, Pizarro makes use of a stencil with a prefabricated signature. Whereas he first tried to convince both his men and posterity that history indeed enters the scene of action through writing, his simulated signature only documents the fallacious illusion that motivates the Spaniards to control the jungle, a land created by an angry god and left unfinished until humanity disappears from the earth again. Writing skills on the other hand cannot imbue colonial activity with
parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, die wearing of a stylistic inask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of inimicry, without parody's ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists somiething normnalcompared to which what is being imiitated is rather comic. Pastiche is blank parody, parody that has lost its humior." Fredric Janeson, "Postimodernism and Consumer Society," The Anti-Aesthelic: Essays on PostmodernCulture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1983) 114.

LutzP Koepnick

149

historicalsignificanceeither;they cannot inscribeinto the hostilejungle a room of one's own. True to Marx'sfamous remarkthat history repeats itself as tarce, Aguirre reproduces Pizarro's strategies of legitimation and domination once his mutiny has succeeded. Again assembled in a clearing, the now smaller group is presented with a speech and a written document. Dratted by Aguirre and read by the monk, the text proclaims the dethroning of Philip II and the entire House of Hapsburg, epitomizing the Spaniards'will to power and history: "We have decided to put an end to the quirks of tate. We are forging history, and no truits of this earth shall hencetorth be shared. We rebel to the death." It is again the medium of writing that in and of itself putativelyjustities and bears testimony to the relevance of political action. Again, however, hyperbolic gestures efface the very invocation of historicity the document seeks to elicit; although the second proclamation has an author, colonial history becomes its own comedy, most clearlybetrayedby Emperor Guzman's childish shedding ot tears while squeezed into his new improvised throne. Similarto the earlier sequence, the clearing by no means delimits a space from which to establishstable institutionsand define a culturalorder againstthe perils of nature. Rather,it is used once more to evoke an act of separation: Aguirre'srebellion inhabitsthe clearnot in order to found a new religion and legal order nor to worship ing past generations, but to overthrow the divine hierarchy altogether, to devaluate the old laws and inflict death upon internal enemies. With irony, then, Aguirre assumes a posture that the urban imagination over centuries has attributed to the occupants ot the woods, where straightlines become circles and traditional distinctions are blurred.23 For the clearing of Aguirre's mutiny in tact describes a space of outlaws, a domain that unsettles the stability ot prevailing rules and institutions, a place beyond the legal and political trameworkssocial bodies institute to separate themselves from the anarchy of the torest.
23. Harrison examines thdie construction of tie forest as a space of outlaws with Middle Ages, the Clhristian particular emphasis on the sylvan imagination during thdie Eraias he calls it: "We will see how the law of identity and the principle of non-contradiction go astray in the forests, and how certain conventional distinctions collapse when the scene shifts from the ordinary world to the forests outside its domain. The profane suddenly becomes sacred. The outlaw becomes the guardian of higher justice. A virtuous knight turns into a wild man. The straight line becomes a circle. Or tie law of gender is confused. Be it religious, political, psychological, or even logical law, the forests, it seems, unsettle its stability. Forests lie 'beyond' tie law, or better, they figure as places of outlaw" (Harrison 63).

150

ColonialForestry

In Aguirre, writing and documentation, the identification of historical and its legitimation,merely foster megalomaniac illusions about activity absolute control and, thus, record nothing other than the evanescenceot historicalconsciousness. Farfrom dictatinga new order and appropriating the jungle, writing confines Aguirre's conquistadors to the same kind ot circles that halt the float's progress in the latter halt of the tilm. Just as writing requires dead wood to reveal itself, he who employs the pen to make historyin the jungle has alreadytailed to recognize the intricate diversityand autonomy of the forest. As a consequence, Aguirre's exploration tails not only because his troops tetishize the torest and, hence, refuse to enter it, but also because they hesitate to leave the chimeric realms of writing and continue to believe that a stylus could cut colonial paths through the tropical torest. Guzman's ceremonious appropriation of land six times as large as contemporary Spain through a simple gaze and stroke ot his pen, therefore, remains an empty, even comical gesture. While the Spaniards believe they are making history through visual contiscation and textual documentation, they themselves have long since degenerated into objects otfa ditterent history. Caught in the circles ot the stream and their colonial visions, Aguirre's men are reduced to "floating meat" as the Indians correctlylabel them trom the firm ground at the edge ot both the river and the forest. V In a famous passage of his third Discourse Method, on Rene Descartes compared the workingsot scientificreason with a straightwalk through a dense forest. Grounded in the art ot methodological thinking, the enlightened mind responds to the anarchy ot the woods and the threat ot turning in circles with its rigorous pursuit of one, and only one, direction. Unlike those travelers,
who, finding themselves astray in some forest, must not wander, turning now this way now that, and even less stop in one place, but must walk always as straightas they can even in a given direction, and not change direction for weak reasons, even though it was perhaps only chance in the first place which made them choose it; for, by this means, if they do not go exactly where they wish to go they will arrive at least somewhere in the end where they will very likely be better off than in the middle of the forest.24
24. Renel Descartes, DiscourseontMethodand the Meditalions, trails. F.E. Sutcliffe (London: Penguiin, 1968) 46-47.

Lutz P Koepnick

151

What is Enlightenment? The ability not to go astray in the woods; the process of methodically exiting the forests ot prejudice and superstition, of cutting avenues through the arboreal thicket. For Descartes's straightforward mind, the torest no longer delimits a space ot radical otherness, a source of constant irritation and destabilization, as so many myths and legends of the Middle Ages wanted to have it. Rather, it describes a fertile training ground to prove and exhibit the lull capacities of scientific reason and human domination over nature. In one way or another, Descartes's metaphorical taming of the torest cleared the ground for the emergence of the first systematic science ot forestry in the history of the West. Not surprisingly, it was inaugurated in Germany in the latter half of the eighteenth century and built around the image of the torest geometrist and his mathematical approaches to straighten out the diversity, randomness, and irregularity ot natural forests. To Descartes's question as to how we may walk in non-circular as lines through the forest, German Forstwissenschajt, Robert Pogue Harrison wittily paraphrased it, answered torcefully: "To begin with you plant your trees in rectilinear rows, as German toresters did. Algebraic geometry suffers no obstacles. The straight lines ot geometry come to the torests of Enlightenment, and the ways of method prevail."25 Embracing the utopian image of a monocultural torest, modern scientific forestry, whether applied to the notorious icons ot German mythology or, later, to vast areas of the American Northwest, gradually reduced all natural variety and complexity. Based on methodic practices ot clear-cutting and systematic strategies ot retorestation, it sought to impose rigorous geometric formulas on the intolerable obscenity ot the forest. The tforest, as Henry Lowood states regarding the new scientific forest management, thus became an archetype for imposing on disorderly nature the neatly arranged constructs of science [and transforming]a ragged patchwork into a neat chessboard. Practical goals had encouraged mathematical utilitarianism, which seemed, in turn, to promote geometric perfection as the outward sign of the well-managed forest; in turn, the rationally ordered arrangement of trees offered new possibilities for controlling nature.26
25. Harrison 123. 26. Henry Lowood, "The Calculating Forester: Quantification, Caierial Science, and the Emergence of Scientific Forestry Managemlent in Genriany," 'TheQuanlifying Spiril of the Eiglhteenth Ceniury,eds. Tore Frangsinyr, J. L. Heilbron, and Robin E. Rider

152

ColonialForestry

Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, the hero of Werner Herzog's perhaps most controversial film thus far, enters the Peruvian rain forest as a direct descendant of German eighteenth-century foresters and their scientific methods. A sylvan chessboard player of first rank, Fitzcarraldo imports the Western geometry of the torest to the Amazon in order to exploit methodically yet unclaimed territories of about 14 million rubber trees, located between the (imaginary) river systems of the Rio Patchitea and Rio Ucayli, south of Iquitos. If his Spanish predecessors got stuck both in the mud and the circles of their own fetishization of the jungle, Fitzcarraldo cuts a straight line, a clearing, through the primeval torest to approach his target area. Whereas Aguirre's conquistadors were apparently frozen in mute horror, and died, as it were, as a consequence ot their inability to see, Fitzcarraldo not only succeeds in conquering privileged vista points, but brings the marvel of Western high culture, Caruso's voice, to the jungle to appease the Indians. He even employs several hundred of them for his ambitious exercise in modernist forestry. "The jungle plays tricks on your senses," Captain Resenbrink, aIla Orinoco-Paul, warns Fitzcarraldo when hired for the colonial enterprise, "it's lull of lies, demons, illusions. I have learned to tell the ditference between reality and hallucination.''27 As if aspiring to comment on the causes of Aguirre's disaster, Resenbrink's words establish him as a focal agent within Fitzcarraldo's geographical project. The latter's sylvan algebra, however, not only seeks to distinguish between mirage and reality like Resenbrink, but to do away with the very conditions that create such possible illusions and irritations. To Descartes's question about the art of walking through the forest, Fitzcarraldo responds: cut all trees in
(Berkeley anld Los Angeles: U of California P, 1990) 341; cited in Harrison 123. 27. Resenbrink's conmments recall au ingenious passage in Alejo Carpentier's jungle novel TheLost Steps, traus Harriet de Onis (1953; New York: Noonday Press, 1989), in which the first person narrator describes distortions of his visual perception vis-;t-vis the tropical forest as follows: "After sailing for a time through that secret channel, one began to feel the samnething that mountain climbers feel lost in the snow: the loss of a sense of verticality, a kind of disorientation, anld a dizziness of the eyes. It was no longer possible to say which was tree and which reflection of tree. Was the light coiming friom above or below? Was the sky or the earth water? Were the openings in the foliage pools of light in the' water? As the trees, the sticks, the lianas were refiacted at strange anlgles, one finally began to see nonexistent channuels, openings, banlks. With this succession of minor mirages, mly feeling of bewilderment, of beinlg comlpletely lost, grew until it became unbearable. It was as tlough I was being spun round and round upon i yself to imake ine lose miy bearings before bringing ine to the threshold of some secret dwelling" (161).

Lutz P Koepnick

153

rectilinear rows, let mathematical formulas and the axe triumph over the obstacles of the jungle, and replace the forest with lunar simplicity, nature with a technological simulation, unpredictable diversity with a vacuum created through method. VI Methods make maps; maps map methods. It comes as no surprise, then, that maps play a prominent role in Fitzcarraldo's initial conception and final execution of his colonial forestry. Whereas in Aguirre reading and writing rather than bridging it, deepen the abyss between imperial imagination and the obscenity of the jungle, in Fitzcarraldo maps are central in the hero's effort to graft abstract formulas onto the irregular forest and to inscribe neatly ordered schemes of science and technology onto the face of nature. The two-dimensional writing of maps inspires, facilitates, even prescribes the paths Fitzcarraldo will cut through the jungle's foreign three-dimensionality. Alter the failure of his ambitious plans to bless Iquitos with a railway connection, an ice factory, and grand opera, Fitzcarraldo seizes the opportunity, while standing in front of a map at Don Aquilinio's house, to become a rubber baron. A very rough sketch, this map depicts the river system south of Iquitos, the isthmus between Rio Patchitea and Rio Ucayali, as well as - in the lower left corner - an emblematic representation of local native life: a group of Indians gathered around two cooking pots, peacefully consuming what could be human flesh.28 Although this abstract geographical blueprint doesn't provide its reader with any sort of measure and proportion and thus presents Fitzcarraldo with as much terra incognita as a scientifically surveyed and methodically staked out terrain, it is in the face of this chart, as Herzog's film novella renders it, that "a sudden flash of inspiration shoots through his mind"29 and Fitzcarraldo conceives of the idea of hauling a boat over an entire mountain. Not the immediate experience of natural settings, but their reduction to an abstract document provide the ground for Fitzcarraldo's active intervention in the geography of the jungle. Once at the site of the projected traverse, maps remain instrumental in determining and sateguarding the direction of Fitzcarraldo's undertaking.
28. A reproduction of this map and its imaginary geography can be studied in Werner Herzog, FilzcarraldoFtlmbuch (Munich: Schiriner-Mosel Verlag, 1982) 152. 29. Werner Herzog, iilzcarraldo:The Original Slory, trans. Martje Herzog and Alan Greenberg (San Francisco: Fjord Press, 1982) 54.

154

ColonialForestry

Reaching for the first time the summit of the slope he desires to cross with the Molly Aida, Fitzcarraldo points frantically at his chart, proclaiming to the amazed crew: "This is it. This is what we were looking for." A platform, quickly built in the crown of a giant tree, provides the men with panoramic views of the jungle and the river system, apparently permitting Fitzcarraldo- to borrow Pratt'snotion once more an archetypical monarch-of-all-I-survey scene, a spectacle of nature that unfolds beneath his privileged, sublime vista point. First situated in a helicopter, the camera then moves directly behind Fitz-carraldo's head and presents the hero looking at and embracing the landscape with imperial gestures. Although appropriating in its very nature, Fitzcarraldo'scolonial view here diffters from the gaze of many an imdiscoverer in colonial travel literature. For Fitzcarraldo'sgaze perial merely meets and seeks reconfirmation of what it has read into the maps to begin with; in the utilitarianeyes of this scientific forest manager, nature emerges as a mere simulation of the charts of instrumental reason, as a bad and interior copy of its own abstractmodel, and therefore as an object of legitimate erasure. Throughout the subsequent cutting sequences we see Fitzcarraldo many times over peering around and pointing at his oversized map, thus not only fusing two different strategiesof reading, tusing signitier and signified, but also, in combination with his use of a tripod-supported measuring instrument, trying to reattirm his authority and the fragile support of the Indians. As method is supposed to prevail, it doesn't surprise us that Fitzcarraldo employs progressively drastic means to triumph over the hurdles of an untinished nature. Since the mountain turns out to be steeper than expected, dynamite has to carve a ramp right through the naked surtace of the earth. After a belt of about twenty meters has been cleared in the jungle, Fitzcarraldo prompts his men to install a mechanism to pull the cables that hold the boat. A long, documentary-like sequence portrays the Jivaros' ettorts to establish the central winch, manoeuvering the upper, stripped part of a tree into a hole burned into its former trunk: where once there was a naturalforest, colonial forestry now erects an artificialtree. As this scientific simulation of nature, however, tails to yield the desired success, Fitzcarraldofinally takes up Huerequeque's suggestion to have the boat pull itself by means of its own engine and a complicated networkof cables and winches. To achieve masteryover nature, Fitzcarraldo thus engenders a technological utopia of the highest degree. In his

Lutz P Koepnick

155

tinal strategy, technology becomes self-referential; the image ot Molly Aida climbing up the slope by itselt recalls the age-old dream (and horror) of technology as a perpetuum mobile, an autonomous, deified subject that acts according to its own logic and will. In his analysis ot Wagner's techniques of composition, Adorno labeled phantasmagoric such dreams of rendering technology a second, autonomous nature, of invoking myths of technological sell-procreation, and ot presenting products as self-producing.30 And Fitzcarraldo's endeavor is indeed phantasmagoric, as it aspires to displace nature and assemble in the middle of the jungle an autonomous technological configuration whose workings may be admired yet no longer controlled: challenging the mythic spells and trustrations of the rain torest, Fitzcarraldo directs a sylvan spectacle in which technology becomes myth again. And it is a phantasmagoric sell-delusion, a crude dialectics ot instrumental reason, that causes the final tailure of Fitzcarraldo's colonial project, despite the fact that he succeeds in hauling the Molly Aida over the slope. Nature strikes back, refusing to be improved upon by Western geometry and technology. Once the boat has reached the opposite river, and alter a communal least of intoxication, the Indians cut the cables while Fitzcarraldo's crew is still asleep. The steamer dashes through the one-way rapids, the Pongo das Mortes, no longer a sellsustaining automaton, but a toy in the hands of a Dionysian nature, and therefore - again - beyond any human command. As she dritts back to her original point of departure, the Molly Aida completes a circle that was supposed to cut a straight line leading to a rubber plantation. First hailed as a new myth and mythology, technology finally succumbs to the very forces it was supposed to master. Although Fitzcarraldo, then, initially embraces practices of colonial forestry tundamentally different trom those ot his Spanish precursor Aguirre, he at first sight seems to fall into a similar trap. Whereas Aguirre's men perish in the circles of their own invention of South America as mere nature, Fitzcarraldo talls prey to his dream about a technological displacement of nature. As Aguirre's tetishization of the forest as well as Fitzcarraldo's sylvan phantasmagoria remain ultimately ensnared in colonial constructions ot the Amazon and Western models of forestry, both heroes fail to delimit a space trom which to
30. Theodor W. Adorno, In SearchoqIWagner, tranls. Rodney Livingstone (London: NLB, 1981) 85.

156

ColonialForestry

accommodate the real spells and demons of the forest. A closer look may reveal, however, that the end of Fitzcarraldoin contrast to Aguirre, tries to resolve this agon between jungle and Western forestry and pay tribute, as it were, to nature as an unknown and incomprehensible other. When Fitzcarraldo, in the last sequence, emphatically fultills his earlier promise to bring opera to Iquitos, he also testifies to the vanity and conceit of any attempt to mediate between Western approaches of ordering natural space and the polyphonic complexity of the tropical rain forest. After the collapse of his rubber enterprise, Fitzcarraldo subscribes to an ironic two-realm-doctrine, an aesthetic existence as much humble as it is eccentric: modest in its gesture of self-limitation, radical in its craze to drive the particular to its inherent extreme. More than simply a gesture, however, Fitzcarraldo's theatrical return to Iquitos implicitly bespeaks what I am tempted to call his new sylvan essentialism. With his long cigar in his mouth, he concedes to the unattainable and unrepresentable otherness of the forest, and, instead of structuring nature, espouses cultural artificiality at its best: what remains provides the poets, not the colonialists; the filmmakers, not the foresters. VII If Herzog in the end prompts his Cartesian forester Fitzcarraldo to inhabit the autonomous universe of art, he detaches his seemingly Romantic hero from the sylvan mythologies of German Romantics such as those of the Brothers Grimm. In the forest, the Grimms discovered an inexhaustible well of national and racial unity; although a site of spells and frustrations, the forests of German Romanticism represented loci of origin and stored "the essential truths about German customs, laws, and culture.""31 In order to strengthen the national community, according to the Grimms, the Germans only needed to return to their old forest, the source of timeless national identity vis-Ai-vis fragmentation and occuthe pation by the French during the Napoleonic Wars. Whereas the Grimms insisted on a continuity between the forest and modern civilization, between the mythic origin and the present, between nature and culture, Herzog's Fitzcarraldoleaves the spectator with an image of radical discontinuity between the tropical forests and the alleged fruits of Western high culture. Although even opera, in lace of
31. Jack Zipes, The BrothersGrimm: hRomr to Enchanted obrests the Modern World(New York: Routledge, Chapmlan and Hall, 1988) 45; see also Harrisonl 164-177.

LutzP Koepnick

157

the incomprehensible articulationsand disorder of the jungle, may only resemble half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, it is only through art that one may achieve the kind of humbleness that, according to Herzog, is needed to do justice to this discontinuity between nature and human civilization. In contrast to the Romantic ideology, the forest in Herzog's films no longer constitutes a repository for the essentialtruthsof culture;rather,as civilizationhas alwaysalready forgotten the trees it emerged from whenever it tries to define itself, it falls into the traps of arrogance whenever it seeks to conquer and then, recapture what it has lost in the first place. In contrast to Aguirre, Herzog's second Amazon film involves more than a cinematic exercise in inverted anthropology; with Fitzcarraldo, Herzog paradoxically seeks to represent the unrepresentability of the tropical rain forest. Conjuring a spectacular panorama, he tells his spectators that Fitzcarraldo'sinitial sylvan optics necessarilyleads astray,that it suggests a kind of control and ordering, a kind of interaction between culture and nature that can never be more than a mirage. By definition, the forest remains the other, whether it is clear-cut by scientific foresters or pictured through the lens of a camera. The costs of Herzog's green essentialism in Fitzcarraldo, however, are To debunk Fitzcarraldo'sforestry and politics of seeing, Herzog high. himself needed to cut a Cartesianclearing into the forest as he categoriin cally refused to rely on special efttects hauling the boat over the hill. Dedicated to troublesome notions of cinematic authenticity,the auteur Herzog had to make Fitzcarraldo'senterprise his own in order to uncover the shortsightedness and ultimate failure of the hero's colonial sylvanism. Consequently, the diegetic text, in spite of its critical trajectory, convinces only to the extent that Herzog's images prompt the spectatorto forget about the man behind the movie camera and the ettects of his desires to direct nature.Although exposing Fitzcarraldo's emof technology as phantasmagoric,Herzog's own politics of ployment representing the rain forest remain phantasmagoric through and through: his film must efface every trace of its own production. It must Whereas Fitzcarraldofinally returns to present itself as self-producing.32
32. In Ihisessay "The Recipient as Spectator: West German Film and Poetry of the Seventies," German Quarterly55.4 (1982): 499-510, Russell A. Berman even argues that most of Herzog's films tend toward phantasmagoria because they unfold purely visual spectacles, render language secondary, and thus solicit mlute, inactive modes of spectatorshlip rather than critical acts of reception: "The viewer is produced as the passive

158

ColonialForestry

opera to escape the terror of the jungle, Herzog leaves the spectator with a visual spectacle that, although unveiling Fitzcarraldo's colonial optics, obscures the director's own Cartesian sylvanism. A master in the jargon of authenticity, Herzog, in other words, uses the diegetic to text of Fitzcarraldo exercise his own colonial practice, an exercise that cannot but forteit its alleged aspiration to obliterate the grounds and politics of what I call here colonial forestry. At the end of Fitzcarraldo, the hero comprehends the absurdity of his initial desire to become a spectacle in the forest; for Herzog the filmmaker, by contrast, spectacles are the stuff of life - and the primeval forest the ideal training ground to probe the boundaries of an auteur's aesthetic existence. Although Herzog tails to dissociate his own project tully from his heroes' sylvanism, it is nevertheless to his credit that his films systematically disappoint ethnological expectations of the spectator: both Aguirre and Fitzcarraldorefuse to portray scenes of undisturbed native lite, leaving them in the unlimited off-screen space. We never see Indians save in interactions within the colonial contact zone, that is, as members of a collective already bereft of its unviolated autonomy and identity. In contrast to Hollywood simulations of authenticity,33 Herzog's Amazon films spare us the depictions of native life beyond the imperial perspectives of their heroes, perspectives whose inherent schisms are unveiled in both films. Because not the Indians, but rather the opera enthusiast in Fitzcarraldo,the rebel and tyrant in Aguirre,mark the spectacle in the forest, Herzog avoids deceiving his spectators with the illusion that we could see native life without being seen. Important chapters in the history of selt-reflective filmmaking, Herzog's films simultaneously expose and undermine the chimera that the eye of the camera could witness without staging and, hence, without effacing native authenticity. Even Hollywood, however, seems at times to recognize that films are produced in the clearing of modern civilization, and permits indigenous life to escape the screens of cinematic representation. Consider, for
observer of iiiiages, not as an active reader of coilmmunicative symiibols ... A Ilonl-coilpreleIlndilng fixation onl the imlage is set as a privileged Imlode of experience, allegedly providing access to a imloreauthentic perception than could a ratioial-discursive penletrationi" (504). 33. Coilsider, to naiile only one of the latest examllples, the bogus construction of Indian autheilticitv in ihe MedicineMan (1992), starring Sean CoInnery as a scientific geilius who lives with a tribe in the Velezuelaii jungle to analyze certain substauces that imay lead to a cure for calicer.

Lutz P Koepnick

159

instance, Hector Babenco's elegy At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991), which narrates the story of the native-American Louis Moon who intoxicated by a powerful drug - parachutes into a Niaruna village in the Brazilian Amazon and tries to become primitive again. The camera follows closely every step of his approach to the village, trom his jump, his landing in a nearby river, his unclothing, to his entrance into the village's tightly integrated structure. Ironically, the natives mistake Louis Moon for Kisu Mu, a mythical messenger from the moon and therefore pay respect to him. A highly instructive sequence shortly alter his arrival shows Moon's excursion to a river pond, trequented by the natives as a hangout and washing area, in the close vicinity of the village. Once at the river, Moon's gaze is caught by a native girl who will later become his wife. Positioned hall in the water, hall between the roots of an immense tree, she kindles Moon's desire thanks to her appearance as an harmonious extension of the forest itself. The price of Moon's desire for a reconfiguration of lite in nature, and our witnessing of the village life, however, is high. Moon will not only transmit the flu to his hosts and cause massive death, but also - unintentionally legitimize a government attack on the village. At the end, a long aerial shot shows the burned and deserted village, while it allows the few remaining Niaruna's to escape into the thicket of the jungle and regain, somewhere else, an existence in a space off-limits to representation. In Babenco's film, both the desire to become primitive again and to represent the indigenous life yield lethal effects: the Western gaze destroys the very object it seeks to focus on, whether it seeks to find an alternative lifestyle, or whether it wants to satisfy our ethnographical curiosity. Although Herzog's own position as a colonial forester remains troublesome, his second Amazon film especially is well aware of the politics of representation. The traces of destruction Fitzcarraldo and his colonial gaze leave behind in the torest pretigure, it you will, the torched earth in Herzog's latest documentary, the cinematic requiem about the burning oil fields in postwar Kuwait. In the earlier film, Italian opera seemed to provide alternatives to the destruction of nature. Herzog's apocalyptic desert landscapes in Lessonsof Darkness(1992), on the other hand, remain mute, indeed even silenced by musical thunders from The TwilightoJ the Gods.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful