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 Thus, when one chooses the English language option on the DVD one is watching the film as it was originally made.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 part. 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 on 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. This 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 who helped him set his boat free, as 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.
The film violates so many Hollywood precepts of what should be in a film like this. First, although we see that Fitz and Molly are in love, their romance is briefly limned. One might complain that more of Cardinale’s legendary looks and flesh should be on display, but for the brief rapture that would bring, the film would pay a price in banality.
Then there is Herzog’s famed ‘eye level realism’. Like Aguirre, this film, while it has some airborne shots and vistas, is mostly told as if the camera is right there with Fitz and his crew. There is no God-like all-seeing eye that lets the viewer know things the characters do not. We thus empathize far more with them.
The film also takes a good hour before the journey upriver begins. In this way we spend the first portion of the film getting a sense of Fitz, the town, and the locals, much as is done in a film whose narrative structure is manifestly written into this film’s DNA — Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 black and white masterpiece The Wages Of Fear, which also takes an hour to set up its characters before setting them on their adventure, also in South America.
Too often this film is seen as a simple ode to determination or obsession by the simpleminded who love the film and those equally simpleminded who hate it, and Herzog, whom they always accuse of abuses — many of which, it should be noted, are exaggerated by Herzog to sell tickets.
In his film commentary, as example Herzog repeats the old legend that an Indian woodsman was bitten by a snake and saved his life by chainsawing off his own foot. These legend-building canards make for good press, even if negative, for Herzog has always subscribed to the dictum that the only bad press is no press. This can be seen in the very nature of the tale, as well, for there was a real Fitzcarraldo – called Fitzcarrald – although he disassembled his much smaller boat than the film portrays, and hauled it across flat jungle, then reassembled it. Herzog, of course, had to go one – or three – better than reality.
In the film, there are very good supporting performances from all the other characters, including Molly, Don Aquilino, and his crew: an experienced captain, Orinoco Paul (Paul Hittscher), who can tell what river he’s on by tasting the water, but who has terrible eyesight, a terrific but undisciplined and resentful mechanic, Cholo (Miguel Ángel Fuentes), a huge menacing Peruvian, and a drunken ship’s cook (Huerequeque Bohorquez) who comes aboard with a coterie of kitchen help bimbos.
But, Kinski, with his blue eyes enveloped by his bulging whites, his shocked golden mane seemingly on preternatural end, and his perpetually white suit and hat, dominates the film’s every aspect, which, despite its eye level realism, is an epic.
How else to describe how Fitz and Herzog approach things? Herzog could have saved time and money by using special effects to haul the boat over the mountain, but didn’t. He used a real steamboat; two were built for the film, and the film makes good use of a first human-powered attempt, and then a second attempt where the ship's motors do the work.
That said, there are several scenes of the steamboat coming down the rapids that are done with a model, and Herzog wisely goes quickly through these scenes. The giveaway is that water droplets and waves are not scalable. However, Herzog does let the scene play out in real time, rather than resorting to quick cuts and a fury of noise. Similarly, there are long shots of the boat literally inching up the mountain which add to the dramatic tension, but that filmmakers in this MTV-infected age would never allow.
The DVD, put out by Anchor Bay, and part of their great six-DVD Herzog-Kinski Collection (which includes all five films the duo filmed together, as well as My Best Friend), is in terrific shape — devoid of scratches and in glorious hues that are never too much. It was copied from a great transfer, filmed in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It also comes with the original German film trailer, a stills gallery, talent bios, and a commentary featuring Anchor Bay’s Norman Hill prompting Herzog (perhaps the best and most cogent DVD commenter going) and his brother, the film’s producer, Lucki Stipetic. Stipetic is Herzog’s real surname; Herzog is his middle name.
The commentary is shorn of the usual non-critical fellatio and philosophic meanderings most films have. Perhaps the funniest anecdote is how, during an early opera house scene with Enrico Caruso (Costante Moret), we see the character of legendary stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. First, we get the visual cue that she’s not singing, when we see a fat lady singing in the orchestra pit, and then Herzog reveals that the Bernhardt character is being played by a transvestite actor named Jean-Claude Dreyfuss.
Perhaps the only way this DVD, or the DVD set could have been improved was to have included the making of documentary about the film, Burden Of Dreams (1982), shot by Les Blank and Maureen Gosling. The rest of the film and DVD are in fine form, as Thomas Mauch, Herzog’s cinematographer, brings eye level realism to great heights, even as we whirl about Fitz and his crew in a tall tree stand from a helicopter shot. The film’s score is impressive, once again, as Herzog proves that he has no peer in film scoring, again relying on Florian Fricke and Popol Vuh, as well as native jungle music, and turn of the century recordings of Caruso singing Giuseppe Verdi, Vincenzo Bellini, and Richard Strauss.
Yet, there are many little moments in the film, that are the realism in the ‘eye level realism’, which make the film seem less like a film and more as if a camera had been snuck aboard a real life adventure. This is where the film’s greatness really comes into focus, for so few other directors ever have such moments in their films. Herzog often calls these moments ecstatic truths, but they are great because they are not really ecstatic, merely ordinary, but displaced in narrative space and time so that they take on a meaning and metaphor that is not immanent.
As example, there are the young children who stare at the jail Fitz is held in after an incident at a rubber baron’s party. The police chief lets him out because the children will not flee, and one child plays a fiddle for days on end. Why? There is no explanation, but oddities like this occur in life far more often than they ever appear in film.
There’s the tiny black employee of Fitz’s, who has guarded his railroad property from Indians, not knowing it’s another project he has returned on. His odd but endearing behavior seems real precisely because only an oddball would defend another man’s property without pay for months on end.
There is the black umbrella that floats toward the boat as a seeming warning from the local Indians. There is the celebration by the Indians after the boat has made it over the mountain, where native women squirt their breast milk into bowls to be drunk.
Then, at film’s end, there is a close moment between Fitz and Captain Paul. Yet, Fitz whispers it into the Captain’s ear, so the viewer never knows what is said. Having seen the more recent Lost In Translation, where what was whispered between that film’s two lead characters was taken as a ‘stroke of genius’ by tyro director Sofia Coppola, it does not surprise me that she stole that idea from Herzog. In this film, since it is a greater film, and the two characters have gone through far more, the gesture is even more powerful and moving.
The very fact that a moment like that goes uncommented upon by all the major critics of the film, then and now, yet when it appears in a film like Coppola’s is lauded without surcease, shows how far much more a film like Fitzcarraldo has to offer than a rather light piece of fluff like Lost In Translation. This is because such moments are in surfeit in Fitzcarraldo, whereas they are the centerpieces of Hollywood tripe. But, as Captain Paul mentions to Fitz, there are two kinds of silences — the good and the bad. Oddly, the lack of praise for such a great moment is one of the good silences. Enjoy the gilt.