A Film Rumination: Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog (1982)

9/10 (Masterpiece)

Werner Herzog’s masterpiece, Fitzcarraldo (1982), has long been one of my favorite films.  It’s one of the few films I’ve seen more than once (with friends, family, and with my cat).  Every time, I’m blown away by its sheer audacity and raw power.  This is entirely due to Herzog’s rather mono-thematic view of the world (MAN MUST TAME NATURE) and the grueling experience one undergoes while watching Klaus Kinski tear up the scenes — overwhelming us with his stares, his shocking blonde hair, his unusually contorted face.

I recently watched the documentary Burden of Dreams (1982) by Les Blank (who also filmed Herzog eating his shoe after he lost a best with Errol Morris) which chronicled the insanely difficult adventure of making Fitzcarraldo in the Brazilian Jungle.  I’ll review the documentary eventually — it’s a wonderful addition to the film with some interesting Herzog monologues and accounts of natives threatening the sets (almost forcing Herzog to abandon his project), sequences from the original character’s sidekick played by Mick Jagger, and Herzog rants about the horrors of nature.

Plot Summary (limited spoilers)

Brian Sweeney Fitzgeraldo (Klinski) has the life long ambition to bring the opera to the jungle.  In order to do so, he procures land in the Brazilian interior to harvest rubber with native labor.  However, the land he’s purchased is inaccesible because of a series of rapids blocking the main river.  Instead, Fitzgeraldo (after a tryst with the delightful Molly — an aging Claudia Cardinale) sets off down a side tributary and chooses a point closest to the other river (above the falls) to HAUL his river boat across.  The majority of the film concerns this monumental task — moving a massive river boat across a mountain.  Soon however, the natives have their revenge!

Final Thoughts

Although the plot is minimal, the visual spectacle and Klinski’s force of presence carries the film.  In addition, Herzog is cinematographically at his best.  The sequences where the river boat peers over the crest of the mountain in the massive carved out trench hauled by a series of capstans operated by Indian labor is gorgeous, momentous, and aw inspiring.  And, the last scene is by far one of my favorite — however, I can’t spoil it!

Some other tidbits worth noting — during the filming of the movie Klaus Kinski angered Herzog so much that the natives offered to kill Kinski for him!  Herzog ACTUALLY did haul the boat across a mountain and ACTUALLY did the sequence going down the rapids while ON THE BOAT going down the rapids.  Herzog has been attacked for his treatment of the natives in the actual filming — however, he paid them three times the going rate for many many many months of work and the local missionary checked up on their livelihood (and suggested some controversial methods to keep them happy — according to the documentary filmed on location) multiple times.

This is a fascinating experience — visually and emotionally.  Herzog’s mono-thematic themes can be somewhat overplayed (Grizzly Man for example), however, here it works.  This is by far the most famous film I’ve reviewed yet and it completely deserves its reputation.  Watch it!

18 thoughts on “A Film Rumination: Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog (1982)

  1. What a great film! This is one of my all-time favorite Herzog films, and probably Kinski’s best. I can’t imagine that it would have been half as good with Jason Robards and Mick Jagger.

    • I agree…. I think my favorite Herzog film still has to be Stroszek… Especially the scenes searching for the tractor with metal detectors on the frozen lakes — and the end.

      Have you seen the documentary I mentioned (made on set about the making of Fitzcarraldo)? Burden of Dreams dir. Les Blank… It’s worth watching!

      • I have a lot of Herzog films to watch before declaring a favorite, but Stroszek is certainly at the top of my running list.

        Bruno Schleinstein is incredible. How Herzog finds these people, and then gets these superb performances out of them is totally amazing.

        And yes, Burden of Dreams is incredibly interesting!

    • I think Kinski’s performance in Fitzcarraldo has a lot more depth to it than his work in Aguirre. Although as a raving madman – there are few if any more convincing performances in the later.

    • Nosferatu the Vampyre was the first Herzog film I ever watched and i found its pacing to be a little slow – at least before watching Murnau’s original a few months later – only then realizing what Herzog was attempting to do in his remake.

      Having re-watched Herzog’s remake a number of times, and having since become a fan of Murnau’s original, I think Kinski’s vampire has a depth to it that few others have achieved – and is definitely worth a look!

  2. Great pick. It’s also worth noting that the creators of the soundtrack, Popol Vuh, produced some of the greatest music of the 20th century. Some of the best is featured in Nosferatu.

  3. I concur with Stewart re: Popul Vuh…. some excellent music.

    But, aye, good review. I liked this film a lot first time I saw it (actually, I picked up a box of DVDs with that and some other stuff cheaply recently which I really *should* get around to).

  4. Dear sir –

    Great review. As a big Herzog fan, I’m ashamed to say that I’ve yet to see “Fitzcarraldo.” I have, however, seen “Burden of Dreams.” I know, I know, that doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the weird order I tend to view works by or about a director. In any case, I would challenge and discuss with you a point in your review – you say that an oft-explored theme in Herzog’s work is that “MAN MUST TAME NATURE!” I disagree. From the films of his that I’ve seen – and from what I’ve heard and read of the flicks of his that I haven’t seen – I would modify that to something more along the lines of MAN FOOLISHLY TRIES TO TAME NATURE BUT FAILS. Thoughts? Also, if you’re at all interested in Herzog, you should read this profile ASAP: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/04/24/060424fa_fact_zalewski?currentPage=all

    All the best,


    • He does tame nature in this film — man (albeit, “wild/savage men”) is the cause of his ultimate downfall… But yes, in other films (especially Grizzly Bear) this is definitely the case. Perhaps nature in a more general sort of sense — one’s own nature (sounds somewhat cliché). Hmm…

      I’ll check it out.

  5. I’m not adding much to this discussion, but you guys have got me excited for the Herzog films coming up soon in my Netflix Que.

    Of the three Herzog films I’ve seen (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, and the Enigma of Kaspar Hauser), Fitzcarraldo beats out Aguirre by the slimmest of margins.

    Joachim, if enjoyed Fitzcarraldo, I suspect there will also be moments in Aguirre that will profoundly enjoy.

    I’ve got Heart of Glass next in my cue, with Nosferatu not far behind. I’m saving Stroszek for a rainy day. Herzog is brilliant.

    • Yup, I loved Aguirre, Heart of Glass, Nosferatu, Stroszek (probably my favorite Herzog film — and the most depressing), and felt somewhat ambivalent about Woyzeck — and I haven’t seen Enigma of Kaspa Hauser yet.

      But yes, he’s brilliant (not so sure about his later film endeavors though…)

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