I’m not sure you can look at “Fitzcarraldo” without comparing the film’s obsessively tenacious lead character with its equally mulish and unyielding director. In fact the entire production testifies to a specific type of incomprehendible creative madness. Yet without that very madness “Fitzcarraldo” would have been a lesser movie.
“Fitzcarraldo” was written and directed by Werner Herzog and the making of his film is a legendary story in itself. Herzog was determined to bring as much realism as possible to his picture by steering free of any special effects. This meant shooting in the jungle next to an ongoing border war between Peru and Ecuador. It meant facing natural hardships brought on by shooting on location.But those obstacles would shy in comparison to the human hurdles. Jason Robards was originally cast as the lead character Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald but almost halfway through shooting he contracted dysentery and was flown back to the States. Doctors refused to let him return meaning Herzog had to recast the role and restart shooting from the beginning. Herzog regular Klaus Kinski was given the role which brought a slew of new problems.
Kinski was known for his volatile run-ins with his directors and crew. It was no different here. He repeatedly fought with Herzog and even angered the natives serving as extras (It’s said one of the local chiefs offered to kill Kinski for Herzog). This obviously complicated production in a number of ways, but Kinski’s flirtation with madness is also what made him perfect for the role. His wild, eccentric nature was an ideal fit for a character possessed with realizing his dream of bringing opera to the Amazon.
Fitzgerald (called Fitzcarraldo by locales who can’t pronounce his name) comes across as delusional but he is driven by the best intentions. He’s not a bad guy. He believes in a transcendent quality to opera which could have magnificent effects in the heart of the Amazon. But time and again his optimism and determination crashes into walls of ridicule and disparagement.His one light comes from Claudia Cardinale. She plays Molly, his girlfriend who upholds Fitz with her faith and her money. Kinski and Cardinale couldn’t be more different either in character or real-life personalities yet the two work well together. Molly is a constant encouragement even when Fitz’s dream seems all but squashed.
Herzog’s film makes a dramatic change of direction at the midway mark. Fitz realizes his ice-making contraption won’t fund his opera house so he dives into the region’s one lucrative business – rubber. He purchases a steamboat with a loan from Molly, puts together a ragtag crew, and heads down the Amazon River towards his isolated patch of land rich with rubber trees. There’s a reason the land was previously unclaimed. It’s inhabited by a threatening indigenous people and the path to it is blocked by the dangerous Pongo das Mortes (which tellingly means Rapids of Death). But Fitz has a plan as improbable as his opera dream itself – take his 350 ton steamboat down a branch of the river, literally pull the ship over a hillside and into another river branch that bypasses the deadly rapids.The attempt to haul the massive steamboat over a steep, muddy hill became the film’s signature sequence. Herzog’s insistence on actually doing it instead of relying on special effects became a legendary tale that mirrored the fanaticism of the movie’s lead character. Herzog was convinced his audience would never buy it unless they saw it with their own eyes. The difficulty and frustration it brought often threatened to kill the production, but the end product is a shining example of true movie magic.
“Fitzcarraldo” and the story of its filming (much of it chronicled in the documentary “Burden of Dreams”) are like inseparable companion pieces. Each reveals unique sides to this fascinating picture yet together they feel undeniably one. And we are the true beneficiaries. Much like the frazzled Fitz himself playing Caruso on his beaten up Victrola record player, we sense there is something special in the art we are consuming. And for that reason Herzog’s intense creative labor and all of the accompanying hardships were worth it.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS