Fitzcarraldo: “We’re gonna do what nobody’s ever done.”
Like a lot of films I love, the bizarre and obsessive lead character of this film reflects the bizarre and obsessive director who brought his vision to the screen. And like the character Fitzcarraldo (portrayed with wide-eyed manic intensity by director Werner Herzog’s “best fiend” Klaus Kinski), Herzog had his sights set on doing with this film what nobody’s ever done, something that he decided – rightly, I’d say – was unique enough to call himself "Conquistador of the Useless" (later the name of a book of his production notes from the making of this film).
A bit of back story first: in the late 19th century, Carlos Fitzcarrald, an Irish-American-Peruvian made a fortune selling rubber he claimed in a remote part of the Amazon jungle, inaccessible by rapids in both directions on the nearest river. He managed to access the river by crossing a narrow isthmus where the turbulent river is separated from a second river by only a short mountain. Fitzcarrald sailed upriver, dissembled his ship, reassembled it on the other side and voila! he had access to the rubber tree forest in which he made his fortune.
But Herzog decided it wouldn’t be interesting enough to take apart a 32-ton steamer and have it rebuilt. Why stick to reality when you can have cinema? Instead he floated a 300+ ton steamer up river, cut a path across the mountain and built a winch and pulley system with the help of hundreds of native Peruvians and dragged the steamship over the mountain, without the use of any special effects. The effect of the actual steamship being propelled up the mountainside is remarkable. You can’t believe your eyes but there’s the evidence right there in front of you. It's truly insane. And beautiful. And it's wild optimism of a kind almost never seen in this world to make such a thing into reality. And it’s justifiably legendary, so I hope I didn’t need a spoiler alert there.
Back to the film: Herzog, after several setbacks, drafted Kinski to portray Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (pronounced “Fitzcarraldo,” we’re told, because the locals couldn’t say “Fitzgerald”) and I can’t imagine that he could possibly have made a better choice, with Kinski’s wild face and intense stare conveying without a single sound out of his mouth the desire his character has to make his fortune. But he has no real desire to get rich – his dream is to bring the opera to the town of Iquitos where he lives and have the finest opera house in the jungle, a place so grand that he can have Caruso open it and have his pet pig sit in his own box and a red velvet chair. He’s tried two other moneymaking enterprises before to make his dream come true – the Trans-Andean railway (“but the project fell through”) and now an ice factory (“What good is ice here? To cool the rubber?”) and has now settled on becoming the latest rubber baron by crossing the mountain with his steamship.
The film itself follows his mad dream through – he surrounds himself with like minded eccentrics, from his girlfriend Molly, a madam in a local brothel who can help pull the purse strings of some potential investors, to his drunken cook Huerequeque, who helps him communicate with the natives, to the baron Don Aquilino who loves gambling enough to fund Fitzcarraldo’s dream for his own amusement and also take bets on the side as to whether he’ll be killed by hostile natives or go broke first. Herzog slowly puts pieces into place as Fitzcarraldo hatches his idea, puts it into action, assembles his crew, and then, almost an hour into the film, begins his journey upstream. Some people call the film ‘slow’ as a result of this type of pacing, especially when coupled with its many lengthy shots of the boat drifting around bends in the river while records of Caruso blare from the ship’s deck. I wouldn’t have it any other way because the payoff of Fitzcarraldo’s mad journey is that much sweeter. I also find the stunning photography in the jungle hypnotic in the extreme – cinematographer Thomas Mauch had worked with Herzog before several times, including his other Amazonian epic, 1972’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, in which Kinski played a mad European conquerer seeking a fortune in gold in the Amazonian jungle. Familiar? Maybe a bit, but the tone of the two films couldn’t be more different. Where Aguirre finds the greedy expedition falling apart in infighting, sickness, and madness, Fitzcarraldo is about a man winning out against all odds, beating the naysayers and making even the most farfetched dreams come true. When the shot arrives of the steamship on mountain while Caruso plays it’s an indelible moment of cinema. It’s inspiring, each and every time out. After a point in the film when his idea seems achievable, everyone – viewer included – is simply swept up in his dream.
For more about the film, I’d also direct you to the superb documentary Burden of Dreams, in which filmmaker Les Blank recounts the troubled production of the film that dragged on over four years – a story nearly as legendary as the film that actually made it to screen. Sick actors, injured crew, months of footage that needed to be scrapped, on-set fights with cast and crew – everything is detailed in Blank’s film that acts as a companion piece to Fitzcarraldo itself and shows Herzog to be as much a mad dreamer as the character he put on screen. If they’re not the same person at heart, they’re certainly two sides of the same coin.