Reviewed by Rhea Cinna
Within the realm of film, few collaborations are as notorious as those of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. Their working relationship is legendary. Many artists may find it… iffy to work with one another, egos may get in the way—a director’s exasperation with his leading lady/man has become a comedic archetype—but then there is hilarious exasperation and there is filming at gunpoint, broken limbs, arguments that bring whole sets to a standstill and grudges that span years, and, of course, the results of this volatile relationship, a few bits of cinematic art that are as intense and engaging as the medium permits. Fitzcarraldo could easily be called a film of dreams. The dreams the title character and those of the filmmaker. The result is, if nothing else, singular, both in intent and achievement.
Fitzcarraldo is partly based on true events from the life of a rubber baron of the Amazon by the name of Fitzgerald. The film, however, takes plenty of poetic license in turning what may have simply been a profitable endeavor into an extraordinary quest of elevated ideals. Fitzcarraldo (as the natives call Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald) loves opera. He loves it so much that he would row for two straight days and nights, rendering his palms raw, to witness a performance he had no tickets for. He dreams of building an opera house in the middle of the jungle and inviting Enrico Caruso to perform on opening night. For this purpose, he embarks on an impossible journey, staking his fortune, sanity and life.
“Fitzcarraldo, conquistador of the useless!” as the rubber barons call him, is a man of grand (and, as far as those around him can perceive), foolish endeavors, until the day a map tracing two affluent branches of the Amazon catches his attention, sparking his most far fetched plan yet: sailing up an unused (and dangerous because of the rumored unfriendly indigenes) river branch and then pulling the sailboat over a narrow stretch of land separating the two rivers in order to reach a rubber-rich, yet unexploited region, upstream of treacherous rapids that had stopped the rubber barons’ expansion to the area.
Herzog, as a director, has always grazed the limits between skill and genius, ideals and madness, passion and what lies beyond. As such, Fitzcarraldo is far less the story of the rubber-trading Irishman than it is the story of Herzog himself, who refused to give up on his film despite all the curses that had befallen the production. Accidents, a dwindling budget and an ailing leading man that lead to (an extremely fortunate) recasting, didn’t deter him. He claimed abandoning the project would make him a man with no dreams, and that he would rather let his dreams kill him than live without them. The original Fitzgerald split his ship into pieces to carry it over the mountain, Herzog dragged it whole—anything less would have fallen short of his vision. Perhaps that is why watching Fitzcarraldo feels a little like what listening to Caruso in an opera house in the middle of the jungle would have felt like.
Fitzcarraldo as a film, possesses an atemporality made possible by the circumstances of its birth. It is not just the lush, dizzying imagery, the green on the Amazon’s vegetation, the sweat, the flies, the mud, the terrifying waters that seem more real than the people themselves – the Amazon would humble anyone and Herzog does not shy from showing it. At the center of it all, Klaus Kinski in a title role many actors would have crumbled under, matches in presence the sheer scope of Fitzcarraldo, with an energy and intensity that make him exist as Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald. Add to that the music of Caruso and the soberingly real shriek of the pulleys dragging a monstrous pile of metal over a steep hill and one may understand a little of what dreams called madness can accomplish.
Claudia Cardinale plays Molly, the Madame who supports and understands Fitzcarraldo and is a welcome addition to the film, managing to balance Kinski’s wild man ways. Though her presence on screen is limited to a few scenes, nothing could be made possible without her character, from funding his expedition to offering Fitzcarraldo an understanding ear.
There are those who might feel the film loses out to the anecdotic value of its production. A documentary called Burden of Dreams charts the filmmakers’ periplus and stands testament to the unbelievable lengths Herzog and his crew had gone. On the other hand, in the age of blue screens and CGI, it’s a little reassuring, not to mention inspiring that there was an instance when such a film could be made without employing any special effects.
As it progresses, Fitzcarraldo becomes less about the result of the quest and more about reveling in its madness. The boat, finally fallen prey to the ravenous currents, smashing against granite cliffs to the music of Caruso bellowing from an old gramophone, becomes something of a metaphor for the state of mind of the characters (and crew of the film), a moment when the fight had been so acerbic that one can no longer muster any opposition and just allows one’s self to be carried along by fate.
And yet despite the indulgence in the psychological aspect of the man on his mad quest, the atmosphere of the film is never oppressive. Despite being pushed to its limits and beyond, the descent, while never dream-like, is saved by its idealism, Fitzcarraldo’s is not a madness polluted by darkness.
It would be difficult not to compare Fitzcarraldo to Aguirre, the Wrath of God, both helmed by the same director, starring the same leading actor and sharing a setting (the Amazon). What difference is there between the madness of an idealist and that of a tyrant? Does the end justify the means? One need only watch Kinski’s eyes in both interpretations to know the difference. Aguirre was a lost man, setting his sights on something inconceivable. His image, drifting on a raft down the Amazon, surrounded by what had become his subjects, and the image of Fitzcarraldo sailing down the same river, hundreds of years later, to the accords of his opera, are fundamentally different. Fitzcarraldo, in the end, reveals himself as a happy fool, his dreams closer to him than those who had scoffed at his endeavors had ever believed possible.
Rhea Cinna is a doctor, writer and film-maker. While most of her literary endeavors are of the poetic kind, she also enjoys writing screenplays and short prose and has directed a short film. She loves big cities, museums, film festivals and animals in most non-reptilian incarnations. She believes there’s no place like a moated chateau. Her work is forthcoming in Stone Highway Review.