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".
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