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 Thus, when one chooses the English language option on the DVD one is watching the film as it was originally made.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.