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!
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!