Fitzcarraldo (1982) ****1/2
Directed by Werner Herzog
Fitzcarraldo is a visual masterpiece. There are scenes that astound not only the eyes, but also the mind. The sequence involving the transport of a steamboat over a mountain shows an effort in filmmaking that almost transcends even the highest standards. As usual with a Herzog film, nature becomes the driving force of the movie. During and after the second hour of the film, the dialogue becomes very sparse. Sometimes, more than ten minutes pass without any words spoken at all. I can almost guarantee that images from this movie are going to stay with me for the rest of my life.
This is the second film of Herzog’s that I have seen. The first was Aguirre, The Wrath of God, which is one of Roger Ebert’s favorite movies. Filmspotting had done a Herzog/Kinski marathon, so Fitzcarraldo is the second of what will ultimately be six movies showcasing the legendary collaboration between these two eccentrics. In Aguirre, Klaus Kinski completely dives head first into camp with a performance so big, it actually overshadows some of the amazing nature shots. When an actor can pull focus from natural beauty, that’s one heck of an actor.
I’m glad I saw Aguirre first, because now I appreciate Kinski’s performance in Fitzcarraldo in a way I couldn’t without seeing him act before. Kinski does have moments of complete abandon, uttering sometimes ridiculous dialogue with 150 percent commitment (I invented rubber! I will outrubber you!). Yet, for most of the film, he is a soft-spoken, non-threatening presence which completely makes sense since he is almost running headfirst into danger for a dream which is pretty much unfeasible.
Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, known as Fitzcarraldo, after recently going bankrupt because of a failed pipe dream that he could build an intercontinental railroad, decides to attempt to bring his love of opera to the jungle. He adores opera, and wants to build an opera house which would allow him to stay in
So he gathers an eccentric crew to journey with him. Most of his crew abandons him when they realize the danger of the mission. When the encounter with the savage Indians occurs, Fitzcarraldo is happy to find that they are not planning on murdering him immediately, so he uses them to help him heave the steamboat over the mountain.
We have much less death in Fitzcarraldo than in Aguirre. As a matter of fact, I think the body count of the film is one. Yet, the suspense accompanying the danger of nature itself which Herzog emphasizes still remains. The decisions Herzog makes regarding what to film really shows not only his genius, but also his awe and fear of nature itself. This guy has issues and paranoia, but it cannot be debated that he absolutely is at his best when he is filming nature at its fundamental (and Herzog would say cruel) existence.
I went along with this movie and loved it. Yet, I need more plot and less meandering nature imagery in the future Herzog/Kinski films or else I will get tired of the patience necessary to really appreciate these movies. Also, I loved the relatively sparse narrative-driven moviemaking in Fitzcarraldo when it actually occurred. The first hour of the film is a lot of fun as we get to know Kinski and his girlfriend, who owns and runs a brothel. The scenes involving Kinski networking with the wealthy landowners were wonderfully written and acted.
Finally, I simply need to give Herzog credit for his courage. It’s obvious why he chose opera as the gift Fitzcarraldo wants to give to the world. Opera represents the absolute highest aspect of culture. Just about no one can really sink their teeth into it. Personally, I’ve never seen a complete opera and I will never go out of my way to see one. It sounds painfully boring to me. The contrast of high culture with an area of the world almost devoid of any civilization at all points to the bizarreness of Fitzcarraldo’s mission. Herzog’s ambition and execution here is almost equally bizarre. This film is so outside of the mainstream and completely inaccessible to most. Obviously, Herzog felt the need to make this movie. I know that if I were a studio executive being presented the idea for Fitzcarraldo, I wouldn’t hesitate declining. Too bad, though, because I’d be turning down a special gem of a film absolutely radiating of Herzog’s personal investment into this subject matter and into the filmmaking process itself.