I first watched Werner Herzog's 1982 film Fitzcarraldo back in the late 1980s, on PBS, and found it to be a great film. All these years later I still find it to be a great film, if not quite in a league with Herzog and Klaus Kinski's other most famed filmic pairing, Aguirre: The Wrath Of God. The earlier film, made a decade before, shares other elements with Fitzcarraldo, which was written and directed by Herzog. The most obvious is that both involve river journeys in the Amazon, and both films have scenes of troublemakers being left in the jungle to fend for themselves. In Aguirre it's a horse, in Fitzcarraldo it's four humans. A less obvious commonality is that both films were shot in English, then dubbed into German. Thus, when one chooses the English language option on the DVD one is watching the film as it was originally made. This is how I watched it, and how all foreign language or foreign made DVDs should be packaged. In a visual medium there is absolutely no excuse for foreign films to not have available English dubbed soundtracks, for the reading of words necessarily diminishes the visual impact of the film on first watching.
However, this film would still be great even were it only available with subtitles. Yet, if a viewer is expecting another vintage over the top performance by Kinski, he will be disappointed, for Kinski's titular character, whose real name is Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Fitzcarraldo is a local nickname based on a mispronunciation), is far more understated a role than in his other collaborations with Herzog. It's a great performance, nonetheless, which proves a) that Kinski was one of the Twentieth Century's greatest actors and b) how felicitous it was for Herzog that his original choice for the role, Jason Robards, dropped out due to illness. While I think Robards was a fine actor, he was not near the pure acting talent that Kinski was. Another fact gleaned from the DVD commentary is that Herzog had a sidekick role for Robards' version of Fitzcarraldo, with rock star Mick Jagger in the lead role. A few scenes of this pairing appear in Herzog's acclaimed documentary on Kinski called My Best Fiend, and they are absolutely terrible. That Jack Nicholson was also considering taking the lead role, but declined it, is another instance of fortuity's role in great art. There are many little moments in the film, that are the realism in the 'eye level realism', which make the film seem less like a film and more as if a camera had been snuck aboard a real life adventure. This is where the film's greatness really comes into focus, for so few other directors ever have such moments in their films. Herzog often calls these moments ecstatic truths, but they are great because they are not really ecstatic, merely ordinary, but displaced in narrative space and time so that they take on a meaning and metaphor that is not immanent. As example, there are the young children who stare at the jail Fitz is held in after an incident at a rubber baron's party. The police chief lets him out because the children will not flee, and one child plays a fiddle for days on end. Why? There is no explanation, but oddities like this occur in life far more often than they ever appear in film. There's the tiny black employee of Fitz's, who has guarded his railroad property from Indians, not knowing it's another project he has returned on. His odd but endearing behavior seems real precisely because only an oddball would defend another man's property without pay for months on end. There is the black umbrella that floats toward the boat as a seeming warning from the local Indians. There is the celebration by the Indians after the boat has made it over the mountain, where native women squirt their breast milk into bowls to be drunk.
Then, at film's end, there is a close moment between Fitz and Captain Paul. Yet, Fitz whispers it into the Captain's ear, so the viewer never knows what is said. Having seen the more recent Lost In Translation, where what was whispered between that film's two lead characters was taken as a 'stroke of genius' by tyro director Sofia Coppola, it does not surprise me that she stole that idea from Herzog. In this film, since it is a greater film, and the two characters have gone through far more, the gesture is even more powerful and moving. The very fact that a moment like that goes uncommented upon by all the major critics of the film- then and now, yet when it appears in a film like Coppola's is lauded without surcease, shows how far much more a film like Fitzcarraldo has to offer than a rather light piece of fluff like Lost In Translation. This is because such moments are in surfeit in Fitzcarraldo, whereas they are the centerpieces of Hollywood tripe. But, as Captain Paul mentions to Fitz, there are two kinds of silences- the good and the bad. Oddly, the lack of praise for such a great moment is one of the good silences. Enjoy the gilt.
2 out of 3 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.