Ambitious. Determined. Insane. These words describe the movie, it’s titular character, and the madman director himself, Werner Herzog. The film centers around an Irishman named Brian Sweeny Fitzgerald, simply known as Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski) in his hometown in Peru. With the failure of an incomplete and bankrupted railway from the past following in his shadow, Fitz decides to ditch the railway business and become a rubber baron during the Amazon rubber boom. He makes this decision for one reason only: to fund his project of building an opera house right in the middle of the inhospitable Peruvian jungle. It is Fitz’s deep-rooted love for opera and his town’s ignorance to the art-form that persuades him to build this monument for all the people. However, the journey to its completion is not without some choppy water.
In receiving some intel from a helpful rubber baron, Fitz finds out that a large area of land along the Ucayali river is ripe with unclaimed rubber. However, this river is inaccessible to boats due to the rapids and direction of the flow. This does not stop Fitz’s unwavering determination and instead he conjures up an idea so foolishly ambitious and difficult that we, the audience, believe neither him nor the film can pull off such a task. His plan is to travel by steamboat down the calmer Pachitea river which closely parallels the Ucayali river and then haul the large steamboat over a mountain where the two rivers are the closest. After dragging the extremely weighty ship over the steep landmass and back down to the opposite river, he will then travel back down the Ucayali to where the rubber is located. Should be easy, right?
Director Werner Herzog’s notorious “the show must go on” mentality is clearly evident in the film and his driving relentlessness to finish a project no matter what is directly mirrored by the character of Fitzcarraldo. Shooting on real locations with real native people and in terrible working conditions, he managed to finish the film without any of the hardships of the filmmaking show in any major way. The film is a testament to behold because it actually accomplishes what Fitzcarraldo was intending to do: moving a 320 ton steamboat over a steep hill in the middle of the Amazonian jungle. Herzog does this with meticulous craft and without special effects; most of what we see on screen is real and uncompromising. In fact, knowing about actor Klaus Kinski’s bad temper and rough relationship with the native tribe members, Herzog uses this information and doesn’t stop the growing hatred between them to further enhance the acting in certain scenes. According to Herzog, one of the tribe members genuinely offers to kill Kinski for Werner. He kindly declined the offer but only because he needed Kinski to finish the film.
There is one scene, however, that diminishes the realness of the rest of the film. It is the scene where the ship finally made it across to the Ucayali river and is going through the rapids. Instead of using the actual ship to travel down the river and get torn up by the rocks, Herzog uses a miniature ship and set to film the scene. It is very obvious right from the start, you can easily tell that the water is not to scale by the size of the waves and ripples. Deciding to film the scene this way would be an obvious choice to any normal filmmaker as it would evade having to risk completely destroying an expensive ship, but this is Werner Herzog we are talking about. Compromising hard on this scene and not at all in any other scene is what confuses me most about this film.
Time to talk about the acting. Klaus Kinski does an amazing job as Fitzcarraldo and you can really feel his love for Opera. He occasionally plays operatic music through the large loudspeaker that is connected to his old Phonograph and takes pride in owning it. You really get a sense of his larger-than-life personality. A few other actors include Jose Lewgoy, Miguel Angel Fuentes, and Claudia Cardinale who plays Fitz’s wife; there are obviously many more actors including the hundreds of indigenous people but these are the main characters. Although their performances are dated and arguably just plain bad excluding Kinski’s performance, it did not bother me one bit. In addition to the bad voice dubbing, the acting actually added an element of charm and just the right amount of camp to the film.
The cinematography in the film is a character of its own. It is beautiful and haunting in its depiction of the amazon and makes the viewer feel uneasy. The imagery is also striking, from the ship itself being pulled towards the heavens by a complex system of pulleys to Fitzcarraldo standing atop the ship and playing his music for the world to hear. Fitzcarraldo is a film that deserves praise solely for the effort and production, let alone the other smaller pieces that make the whole a greatly unique film experience.