I first watched Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo back in the late 1980s, on PBS, and found it to be a great film. All these years later I still find it to be a great film, if not quite in a league with Herzog and Klaus Kinski’s other most famed filmic pairing, Aguirre: The Wrath Of God.
The earlier film, made a decade before, shares other elements with Fitzcarraldo, which was written and directed by Herzog. The most obvious is that both involve river journeys in the Amazon, and both films have scenes of troublemakers being left in the jungle to fend for themselves. In Aguirre it’s a horse, in Fitzcarraldo it’s four humans. A less obvious commonality is that both films were shot in English, then dubbed into German. Thus, when one chooses the English language option on the DVD one is watching the film as it was originally made. This is how I watched it, and how all foreign language or foreign made DVDs should be packaged. In a visual medium there is absolutely no excuse for foreign films to not have available English dubbed soundtracks, for the reading of words necessarily diminishes the visual impact of the film on first watching.
However, this film would still be great even were it only available with subtitles. Yet, if a viewer is expecting another vintage, over-the-top performance by Kinski, he will be disappointed, for Kinski’s titular character, whose real name is Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Fitzcarraldo is a local nickname based on a mispronunciation), is far more understated a role than in his other collaborations with Herzog. It’s a great performance, nonetheless, which proves a) that Kinski was one of the twentieth century’s greatest actors and b) how felicitous it was for Herzog that his original choice for the role, Jason Robards, dropped out due to illness. While I think Robards was a fine actor, he was not near the pure acting talent that Kinski was. Another fact gleaned from the DVD commentary is that Herzog had a sidekick role for Robards’ version of Fitzcarraldo, with rock star Mick Jagger in the lead role. A few scenes of this pairing appear in Herzog’s acclaimed documentary on Kinski called My Best Fiend, and they are absolutely terrible. That Jack Nicholson was also considering taking the lead role, but declined it, is another instance of fortuity’s role in great art.
As the film starts we find out that Fitz is a local opera-addicted eccentric who seeks to become a wealthy man again during Peru’s ‘Rubber Boom’ at the turn of the last century. He’d lost all his money in a swindle called the Trans-Andean Railroad, and now sponges off the town’s gorgeous madam, Molly (Claudia Cardinale), in the town of Iquitos. He also loves opera beyond good sense, and comes up with a scheme to build an opera house in Iquitos so that his idol, the great opera star Enrico Caruso, will come and sing there.
This seems an improvement from his previous wacky scheme to sell ice to Peruvian Indians. The catch is that his scheme to become a rubber baron requires him to stake a claim to some land that is upriver, on the Pachitea, an Amazon tributary laden with headshrinkers, and requires him to haul his steamboat, bought for him by Molly and renamed the Molly Aida, up the side of a small mountain, so that he can access a cache of rubber trees on four hundred square miles of land that Molly buys the rights to but are thought to be worthless because deadly rapids prevent boats from reaching them.
However, Fitz makes it over the mountain, then unsuccessfully avoids the rapids in the river on the other side of the mountain. The Indians helped him set his boat free, and it is revealed that the reason they helped him and set the boat free was to fulfill a prophecy to exorcise the rapids of demons. Eventually, Fitz makes it back to Iquitos, having failed to make his fortune, but still able to bring an opera company to his town, if not an opera house, as they sail into town singing an aria from I Puritani, even though he has been bought out by the steamboat’s original owner, Don Aquilino (Jose Lewgoy), and saved from total ruin again.