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A documentary on the chaotic production of Werner Herzog's epic Fitzcarraldo (1982), showing how the film managed to get made despite problems that would have floored a less obsessively ... See full summary »
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Fitzcarraldo is an obsessed opera lover who wants to build an opera in the jungle. To accomplish this he first has to make a fortune in the rubber business, and his cunning plan involves hauling an enormous river boat across a small mountain with aid from the local Indians. Written by
Rune Sandnes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Werner Herzog fatuously claimed that the Indians were lucky that he had a doctor on set, failing to realize (or at least to admit) the fact that his policy of relocating diverse tribal groups in alien territory was bound to create inter-ethnic friction. The Indian extras, almost 1,000 in total, were housed in barrack room conditions. The food was appalling and medical supplies limited. There were not enough women to produce the Indians' staple, a drink made from manioc. The only diversion possible was soccer until the ball burst. One native died of malaria, sparking off a period of heightened tension. Some extras worked on the film for six months, their official rate of pay being around two dollars a day. The majority of them had been relocated hundreds of miles from their homes, families, and most importantly, their gardens. When the extras agreed to work on the film, they were unaware of two facts. First, that the project would take twice as long as Herzog had promised them. And second, that for most of this time the extras would work as laborers, clearing forest slopes and trying to haul a 365 ton ship up a 40-degree incline - a ship that was ten times larger than the original. See more »
During one of the boat drifting scenes, crew members can be seen at the top of the boat, including a man wearing jeans who tries to avoid being spotted by the camera. See more »
the most operatic documentary-style epic ever made- fearlessly unique
The story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, aka Fitzcarraldo, is as much the story of his magnanimous pie in the sky ideal to push a boat over a mountain as it is Werner Herzog's own mission to film it. More than a mission- as anyone who saw Burden of Dreams can report- an obsession that might cost a few lives, a good deal of money, and bring a lot of strange first-hand looks at the lives and mind-sets of the natives, but will still bring the greatest of wonders if it gets pulled off. The boat over the mountain is part metaphor, anyway, though not one that's easily pegged into a corner. Achieving something against the odds is something that has been covered in many great films, a quest through man's indelible need to make the impossible possible, be it in a David Lean picture ala Lawrence of Arabia, or in one of Cecil B. DeMille's pictures (and, at times, I wondered if the spirit of one of those old time epic filmmakers came into his mind, if only in bits).
All the while as Herzog is out to map the course of this man who just wants the purity of opera in the jungle, but through a style that is completely all his own, which means that it's not just about one man, but also about the ones around him, the methods to following such delusions of grandeur. Like Aguirre, there's a God complex working in Fitzcarraldo, only this time it's not in the total shroud of madness. There's room for irony, spouts of wild humor (sometimes from Kinski, like when he tries to play an opera record for disinterested party-goers early on in the film), and an overwhelming fascination with what's all around Fitzcarraldo, the jungle, nature, the natives that dwell there and always stick to their indeterminable ways. Watching how Herzog maneuvers through his bulky story is ceaselessly compelling, even in the moments where he just lets the camera take everything in: the waves crashing all around, the boat set against the jungle-scape with the opera singer Caruso in the background, the many faces and poses of the natives and their moments of pure calm versus their unpredictable nature (why do they put on face paint like they're about to go to war, and then nothing happens, don't ask me).
And like in many of his best films, Herzog manages to get much more out of his actors/non-actors and his locations than it might have seemed on paper. Poetry gets set into motion with seemingly the greatest of ease, like a scene where a few natives on a small canoe look on, and Fitzcarraldo thinks about stopping, but they just go on as it's not even worth it, or when he and his first-mate and couple other regulars on the ship try to eat, only surrounded by the natives. Or the shocking moments when after victory seems to be achieved, all is in peril as the boat flaps about on the river and the recording still goes on and on, haunting as anything the jungle can compare to. Indeed, the jungle itself becomes another key part of Herzog's metaphor, even more so than in Aguirre, and it's perfectly exploited (or rendered, depending on point of view) for Herzog's own feelings about the jungle. It's an environment dangerous, alluring, and with the capacity to fear its awesome mass as well as beauty (or, as Herzog said in 'Burden', it's lovable against better judgment), so it's not all taken in at a distance- there isn't so much a real sense of escapism via the hand-held shots unlike in the epics of the directors previously mentioned. Fitcarraldo's own quest then is against nature's own ways- nature is objective and always the same- as the simple notion of moving the boat, and then doing it, goes against nature's true nature, if that makes sense.
In this sense it's a great film of the objective, to which Herzog goes to lengths to capture, *and* the fantastical and subjective, which comes through the operatic portions, and not be bound by nature's usual ways and common sense. Thus it makes perfect sense as well to have Kinski along for the ride, even if it's not his greatest achievement with his most frequent director. It's all in the eyes, practically every step of the way, that one believes this man even through all of the follies and naive flights of fancy, and it's the closest Kinski probably ever came to playing the romantic lead of an adventure picture. Some of the usual scenes of 'damn he's nuts' come up, like his ringing of the town bell. It's another in the line of outcasts he played in Herzog's films, tormented and always in craving for something more, though this time not in a bleak manner. There is the problem that Kinski's presence would be undermined by the many "adequate" images Herzog loves to achieve. Luckily, he stands his ground, and even contributes to the poetry in times of just listening to the Caruso, and gazing on at his dream coming true on the mountainside.
Fitzcarraldo isn't perfect by any means, as it ends up by way of the nature of Herzog's storytelling to almost tell of too much in his scenes. And the English language track I heard sometimes dilutes a few of the performances by feeling too dubbed and a little ridiculous in some instances. But these are just tiny mentions that get overlooked when looking at the success of what is done. Only a director as intelligently deranged and confident as Herzog could have dreamed up this film (based on a true character) and make it as real and alive as the greatest of epic adventures.
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