Peru / West Germany, 1982
Review by Martha Fischer
Posted on 05 December 2004
Source Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD
Features: Directors: Werner Herzog
Reviews: Burden of Dreams
Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo tells the story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (known as “Fitzcarraldo”), a strangely innocent dreamer living in Iquitos, Peru at the turn of the twentieth century. Fitzcarraldo seems to exist largely in his mind, driven by a combination of Enrico Caruso records and an unending series of doomed pet projects, all of which consume him utterly. He is fundamentally unaffected by the world around him, a fact made wonderfully clear in the film’s opening, which finds Fitzcarraldo and his unflappable companion Molly arriving by boat at the Teatro Amazonas. Clamoring out of the tiny, flimsy vessel in their finest clothes, the pair rushes to the theater to see Caruso sing, totally oblivious to the elite of Peru surrounding them. Though the performance is closed to all but the very highest of the upper class, and despite their now-grubby clothes and the stink of a 1200 mile, two-day journey hanging over them, Fitzcarraldo and Molly magically gain admission, and the experience changes his life forever. During Caruso’s death scene, he reaches towards the audience—pointing, Molly and Fitzcarraldo are sure, at Fitzcarraldo himself. At that moment, Fitzcarraldo decides that everyone needs to experience what he has. To that end, he decides to build an opera house in Iquitos, and bring the greats of European opera to the very heart of the Amazon. Thus begins the astonishing, impossible, ultimately tragic journey of Fitzcarraldo.
As Fitzcarraldo, Herzog’s longtime sparring partner Klaus Kinski creates an unforgettable, entirely original character, his greatest in a career of over 200 roles. His impossibly blue eyes, shock of blonde hair, and permanent sneer are normally tools of madness, used to drive audiences away in films such as the great Nosferatu to the dreadful Crawlspace. As Fitzcarraldo, however, Kinski is a revelation. Achingly naïve, his eyes are here filled with wonder and confusion, and he carries himself with an openness and quiet that seem alien to the savage world around him. Even the fundamentally gentle Indians regard him with awe; there are countless shots of silent, motionless Indians simply gazing at him, wondering what this man who fears nothing will do next. Fitzcarraldo is utterly without pretense or ego, accepting money for his schemes from Molly and constantly seeking advice from others. He is unconcerned with who gets credit for ideas or accomplishments, only that his goals are achieved as directly as possible.
And what goals! In order to get the funds to build an opera house, he needs rubber. And in order to get rubber, he needs river access to land protected by deadly rapids on one side and a mountain on the other. Through dizzying but undeniably logical reasoning, Fitzcarraldo determines that in order to get his raw rubber to a port where it can be sold he needs to pull his steamship (the Molly Aida) over a heavily wooded isthmus. Instead of deeming the task impossible, he simply sets out to get it done. Enlisting the assitance of an Indian tribe with motives of its own, Fitzcarraldo designs an intricate set of winches that will enable him to transport of a vessel weighing over 300 tons up a formidably steep incline. The efforts of hundreds of men to clear brush, raise the center masts of winches, and simply walk through lakes of mud are here granted a strange sort of majesty. Seen through Fitzcarraldo’s eyes, this mass of men is engaged in glorious, triumphant labor, working to turn a dream into reality.
The single most dramatic moment in Fitzcarraldo is a long shot of the Molly Aida inching up the mountain. It moves so slowly that it is only by watching the background that one can tell it is not standing still. The camera simply observes the boat crawl, seemingly propelled by Caruso’s very voice—the shot is almost endless, and yet it is so moving that it is hard to resist tears. Here, as in his best films, Herzog is able to show us how dreams can suddenly be affirmed. When the boat finally crests the mountain, we are filled with such awe and joy that we no longer need Caruso to lift our sprits. All we hear are the sounds of the jungle, and they are enough.
Herzog uses nature to great affect in Fitzcarraldo, frequently creating dramatic tension with simple shots of the sun setting over the Amazon. He is a director who has always seen nature as more than just background (the forests in Heart of Glass, for example, and the river in Aguirre: The Wrath of God), and he knows how to let it speak for itself. In this case, nature should logically be man’s enemy: the rapids threaten to destroy Fitzcarraldo’s boat, and his struggle up the mountain is a war against the elements of nature—gravity, untimely rainfall, and mountainous terrain. Herzog actually manages to enlist nature’s own support for his character. While others are seen frantically hacking at vines or cutting down trees, Fitzcarraldo keeps his distance from the destruction. He pursues rubber, yes, but it’s only a means to an end—a way to bring his precious opera to Iquitos. His quest for rubber never takes on the greedy, violent characteristics it did with so many Europeans. And though he never understands the Indians working for him, Fitzcarraldo also never condemns or blames them, even when they bring about the end of his dream. He simply watches and listens, trying to understand.
In the end, Fitzcarraldo fails. His boat is nearly destroyed, he harvests no rubber, and he is left penniless with his dream of an opera house perhaps even less attainable than it was when he began. Instead of retreating into sorrow, however, Fitzcarraldo does the impossible. Selling his ship, he uses his scant profits to bring opera to Iquitos, if only for a moment. When the opera company slowly comes up river, they come in costume—boats full of pilgrims arrive at makeshift docks, followed by dugout canoes bearing men in tuxedos, playing French horns. The sets come as well, piece by piece. Finally, they are assembled aboard the on-loan Molly Aida. The resulting concert—performed for hundreds of cheering Peruvians, a completely satisfied Fitzcarraldo, and a single, very pleased pig—is undoubtedly Herzog’s most generous moment as a director. He turns Fitzcarraldo’s failure into one of the most triumphant, life-affirming moments ever committed to film.