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Based on a historic figure, this is the story of Brian Sweeney
Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), known as "Fitzcarraldo", an eccentric
visionary living in Amazonia. He first tried building a Trans-Andean
Railroad, but went bankrupt. When we meet him, he's trying to make a
living by selling ice to Amazonia natives, although we first see him on
a small boat with his sometimes significant other, Molly (Claudia
Cardinale). They've traveled 1200 miles down the Amazon to an opera
house to hear Enrico Caruso sing, because Fitzcarraldo is an opera
fanatic who especially loves Caruso. He loves opera so much that he
dreams of building an opera house in the relatively remote outpost of
Iquitos, Peru, where he's been living. Understandably unable to find
backers for such a venture among Iquitos' wealthy rubber industry
leaders, Fitzcarraldo hits upon a scheme for making a bundle of money,
and which would eventually enable him to fund the opera house himself.
Unfortunately, not all goes as planned.
Fitzcarraldo was a notoriously difficult film to make. Documentarian Les Blank even made his own film detailing some of the difficulties and apparent ironies, The Burden of Dreams (1982). Director Werner Herzog hauled his cast and crew to Amazonia for the shoot, where they ended up trapped in the rain forest for months. At one point the filmmakers' camp was set fire by Indians who objected to the production, there was an air crash in which some of the crew died, and a couple outrageous "stunts" in the film--including the main plot device of the climax--actually were outrageous, dangerous tasks rather than safe effects/model shots, as we'd expect them to be. Just the idea of pulling off the main stunt caused the Brazilian engineer initially associated with the project to abandon involvement. A number of cast members also backed out, including Mick Jagger and Jason Robards, who were both signed on at different points to play Kinski's role. Knowledge of these kinds of issues makes Fitzcarraldo even more fun to watch, and makes the fact that it was completed at all, not to mention that it is such an elegant masterpiece, more remarkable.
The tone of Fitzcarraldo overall closely matches Kinski's depiction of titular character. It is quirky and surreal, but very subtly yet satisfyingly so, with both an almost garish bizarreness (Kinski is quite odd looking in a way) balanced with a sublime beauty. Herzog imbues the film with a lot of gorgeous cinematography, enhanced by his unique sense of pacing. For example, he'll set the mood of a dawn/dusk scene with a lingering shot of a colorful sky, which then functions as symbolic of a night's events without directly showing them. Herzog matches this same technique in his action--he has an ability to say as much with what he doesn't show his actors doing (or saying) as with more conspicuous content.
Herzog also shows himself to be a master of selecting music to enhance mood and tell a story, as he balances an atmospheric Brian Eno-ish score from Popol Vuh, native jungle music, and vintage turn or the century recordings of Caruso singing Bellini, Verdi, Puccini and such. Of course opera is an important plot device that enters the film at various critical points. Even if you don't like opera, however, Herzog and Kinski make it (and the motivation for it) attractive in context, and you may just find this film beginning to turn around your feelings for that music.
It's interesting to note that even with Herzog's unusual pacing, the flow of the film always seems "natural". Fitzcarraldo also has an unusual plot structure, as it almost stream-of-consciously moves from opera in a formal European-seeming setting to a historical dramatic depiction of eccentrics in a native-filled Peruvian town, and then to an exciting adventure tale that is the heart of the film before it finally reaches an irony-filled, beautifully surreal dénouement. The constant throughout all of this is Fitzcarraldo, of course, who can't help being eccentric but charming, both to the film's audience and to other characters.
Fitzcarraldo is often interpreted as being somewhat critical of western encroachment on other cultures, such as Amazonia. Under this view, Herzog is usually seen as ironically "guilty" of the same actions that he's indicting. However, the film does not read as criticism to me. It's much more in line with what is usually considered to be a romantic tendency in Herzog. Fitzcarraldo is not at all a villain in the film, and neither are the European rubber barons. Instead, Fitzcarraldo is lovable and admirable if a bit crazy. The introduction of western culture doesn't end up being a negative. The natives in the film still retain their unique identities, and efforts are made to interact with them in their manner, not to adapt them to Eurocentrism. Cultural change may be inevitable with interaction, but the message of Fitzcarraldo is more that the interaction can produce unique, worthwhile cultures that are amalgamations of their precursors.
Another interesting subtext is that of Fitzcarraldo as Orpheus. Just as Orpheus enchanted wild beasts, trees and rocks on Mount Olympus with his lyre, causing them to "move from their places", Fitzcarraldo uses opera to enchant the natural world in which he is ensconced, eventually "moving mountains".
Amazingly beautiful, well-acted jungle drama details entrepreneur Fitzcarraldo's attempts to mine rubber in order to raise money to accomplish his dream -- to bring grand opera to his tiny town in Peru. Girlfriend Cardinale buys him a boat (to help with the mining), but unfortunately can't go on the journey, which ends up with Fitz and hundreds of indians physically dragging the huge riverboat over a mountain. Kinski's performance is top of the line, very good direction, some very memorable scenes -- Fitzcarraldo on top of his boat playing Caruso records into the jungle, the huge boat cresting the wave of the mountain, and even the triumphant ending rings true. The best film by Werner Herzog that I have seen.
Full of bravura and inspiring sequences the bizarre epic "Fitzcarraldo" won Werner Herzog the best director award at Cannes Festival in 1982. This is the film that keeps reminding us the words of Oscar Wilde, "We are all in the gutter but some of us look at the stars". Even fewer try to reach the stars and Werner Herzog and his longtime collaborator and frequent adversary Klaus Kinski were certainly the men who have reached them. Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (or Fitzcaralado the local Indians' name for Fitzgerald) was a visionary, a man with a beautiful obsession who dreamed of a building an opera house in the Peruvian rain forests and bringing the great singer Enrico Caruso there. Fitzcaralado's plan involved dragging a huge steamship over a small mountain to avoid traveling upstream through rapids. This plan was duplicated by Herzog during the production and involved the real Indians actually hauling the boat over the mountain. The image of the boat floating in the clouds and the small figure of Fitzcarraldo dressed in the white suit looking with his crazy wild eyes at the boat is one of the most beautiful and breathtaking visions at the screen ever. This film is not as perfect as Herzog's and Kinski's previous project, the stunning "Aguirre, The Wrath of God" but it is a magnificent and fascinating tale that could only be told by its matchless team of creators.
His films are perfect examples of the European tradition of the
'auteur' film, in which the director is seen as the originating and
creative force behind the work
But there is also a sense that Herzog's
visionary monomaniacs function as the director's alter ego, embodying
the heroic status of the auteur, always struggling against recalcitrant
reality to fulfill his dream
This seems especially true of "Fitzcarraldo," which, sets a hundred years ago, begins with an Irish colonist who had a passion for opera rowing 1,200 miles down a South American river, accompanied by the madam of a brothel, in order to hear the great Caruso perform
Inspired by this experience, Fitzcarraldo embarks on a grandiose plan to open up the Amazonian jungle to river transport, providing access to new rubber plantations and thereby making enough money to build an opera house
Herzog's favorite actor, Klaus Kinski, is as appropriately manic as Fitzcarraldo, eyes glittering madly as he pursues his vision In the central sequence he organizes a tribe of Indians to help him pull a steamboat across a mountain in order to by-pass dangerous rapids
"Fitcarraldo" seems by turns admiring of its hero's megalomania and mocking of his hubris, with no illusions about the cynical exploitation of the region's riches by the rubber barons whom Fitzcarraldo tries to defeat by cleverness Ultimately though, it is the sheer spectacle which we remember
This is a quest plot line; the golden chalice is to be found in the interior of the Amazon, a performance by Caruso and his opera company in the early 1900's. Klaus Kinski, of the disheveled blond hair, plays the obsessive opera lover. The town's folks believe him to me loco and well they should since his Trans-Andes railroad bankrupted the dreamer. His ice making operation makes no sense. His dream of Peruvian opera is a laughingstock, but he has an ace up his sleeve, his devoted lover, Claudia Cardinale, the local madam of distinction forks over the front money so Klaus can buy a boat to get to the rubber trees in a remote steamy jungle inhabited by headhunters. Oh, there's another problem. Rapids block access to the rubber trees, so Klaus must take another river parallel to the rapids, and then at a narrow point of land, must drag a steamship over a mountain. Unbelievable, the film crew took three years in the jungle to duplicate the feat, a engineering marvel, or a stunning duplication. My hat is off to Werner Herzog. This is what great adventure and acting is all about.
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.
This is a work of fiction, although the idea for the story and the name
came from a real person who actually lived at Iquitos, Peru, and who
was a rubber (not robber) baron in the eighteen-nineties.
Arguably, Klaus Kinski (as Fitzcarraldo) was born to play the main role although Werner Herzog considered taking up the role himself. But, no one can play an eccentric the way Kinski did in this film. It's not Nosferatu (1979), but the wide, staring eyes are looking at you, all the time, in the same spooky way.
And, only an eccentric of the most magnificent kind would dare to take a 340-ton ship up the Amazon and carry it over a mountain down to another river! Isn't that just one of the craziest things you've ever heard of? Well, the truth is Herzog actually did do that and simply used Kinski as his surrogate to prance around the mud and clay, with the local Indians, and generally taking the praise for a job well done. There were no special effects the production team actually pushed and pulled that hulk up a slope of hundreds of meters and then down to another river.
So, who was really crazy: Herzog or Fitzcarraldo?
Never mind that: just see this movie for the lush, primeval jungles of South America; for the rich tones of various opera singers, including Caruso (on a phonograph); for the stunning photography aboard the ill-fated Molly; for the antics of Kinski, as he thrashes around, pushing himself and others to the limits; for the army of local Indians, pulling the ship over the mountain; for the haunting sound-track provided by Popul Vuh, Herzog's perennial musical team of choice; and, of course, for the lovely Claudia Cardinale past her prime but still remarkable...
I love this movie and I hope you do also. And, when you have seen it, then see Burden of Dreams (1982), the film that tells the story of the making of Fitzcarraldo. It's maybe better than the fiction...
Like Fitzcarraldo, Herzog has a well-known passion for opera--he's been
known to conduct on occasion and refers to music as the territory of
"ecstatic truth." Film, too, has that potential, if it's released from the
literal and the director concentrates on the importance of "great images."
It's no surprise, then, that Herzog made Fitzcarraldo without a well-defined
narrative goal. He just wanted to see if he could do it.
Filmmaking is a personal and social process for him, not a finished product. It's an extreme version of method acting. Like Fitzcarraldo's lifting of the boat, grand gestures go far for Herzog, if only to show the world that you're great and visionary enough to try. Most of his characters are done in by their obsessive drive (Fitzcarraldo's boat crashing into the rapids, Aguirre madly pacing about on his raft), but leave behind something beautiful. Like a boat being dragged up a mountain in Peru with ropes and pulleys or a gun depot going up like the 4th of July.
You can't give Herzog too much credit--he's been more careful not to be done in by his hubris than any of his characters were. In fact, he's capitalized on it, much the same way Cappola did after Apocalypse Now or Hopper did after Easy Rider. No doubt, the tales of his misadventures contribute as much to his films' popularity as the stories and images themselves, and he's been quick to market his persona with books, talks, and films about himself, the mad director.
But still, Herzog is a great romantic that was born of a time and place (Munich, 1942) with few romantics, which is its own great feat. See Fitzcarraldo for a little bit of that.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Fitzcarraldo" is an ode to men who dare to have dreams and make them
come true. This epic speaks volumes about a man who happens to be
obsessed with the opera, which is his passion. He is a foreigner in a
hostile land at the beginning of the last century where enormous
fortunes were made in different parts of the world. For Fitzcarraldo,
it is Peru, the land where he is now living.
As he is introduced in the story, he is seen arriving at the Manaus opera house, to catch the Great Caruso sing. Since he has no ticket, and the performance is sold out, he impresses on one of the attendants, who lets him, and Molly, his companion, stay at the back of the house. Fitzcarraldo, who returns with Molly back to Iquitos, a desolate locale, figures he will bring opera, and Caruso to the city.
Fitzcarraldo, who has no means to support his dream, decides to go into the rubber business. For that, he must go to a remote spot, away from where the other, and wealthier rubber barons, have established claims to the land. It will take only a resolute, and mad person to undertake such a gigantic enterprise.
With the help of Molly, he buys a dilapidated boat and modernizes it. He takes along an experienced captain, a great mechanic, Cholo, and the best cook money can buy into a trip down the river to his property. The only thing is he soon realizes how if he continues along the river route, he will be in danger because of the rapids at one particular spot. His decision, to hoist the ship across a mountain to the other side, where another river is more navigable.
Fitzcarraldo made a lasting impression on the local Indian population, who saw in this adventurer, somebody larger than life. His inter action with them was instrumental in doing the insurmountable task that had to be done to get to his ultimate goal.
This film could only have been done by Werner Herzog, a director who was not afraid to go into an inhospitable part of South America to photograph this magnificent picture. Helped by his cinematographer, Thomas Mauch, he was able to conquer a great obstacle in order to make the film. Popol Vuh's film score mingles with some great music by Bellini, Puccini, Verdi and Strauss that does wonder in the background.
No one but Klaus Kinski was born to play Fitzcarraldo, in what might be considered his best screen role. Mr. Kinski was an obsessed actor who bares his soul in getting under the skin of his characters. As Fitzcarraldo, he goes through the whole gamut of emotions to show what this man was really like. We can't take our eyes from him throughout the picture because of his intensity and his honesty in portraying this mad man with a vision for beauty.
Claudia Cardinale makes a tremendous contribution to the film as Molly, the woman who loved, understood, and saw the genius of her man. Jose Lewgoy is perfect as Don Aquilino, Fitzcarraldo's rival and mentor. Miguel Angel Fuentes is also excellent as Cholo. Huerequeque Bohorquez plays the cook and Paul Hittscher appears as the captain.
The last sequence of the film shows Mr. Herzog's greatness as Mr. Kinski rides with the opera company in a small ship. They sing an aria from "I Puritani", an opera that delights his soul as Fitzcarraldo feasts himself into Iquitos in their company.
This film was a real labour of love for Werner Herzog (he said at the
of making it: "I live my life or end my life with this film"). The
tells the story of an entrepreneaur (Klaus Kinski) who is obssessed with
idea of building a Grand Opera house in the Peruvian jungle. To get the
money to do this however, he has to set off on a long and dangerous
to open up new trade routes for a previously inaccessible part of the
jungle, rich in valuable rubber trees.
The most famous image in the film is the hauling of a large steam-boat up the side of a mountain (a feat which was achieved by the film-makers without the aid of special effects). Visually, the film is spectacular and everything is beautifully photographed. Kinski is superb as the crazed adventurer.
On the minus side, however, some viewers might be put off by the slow pace of the film.
This film stands as one of Herzog's best, and most accessible works, and is a must-see for anyone.
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