Movie Review – Fitzcarraldo

Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Written & Directed by Werner Herzog

After seeing seven of Werner Herzog’s feature films, I can confidently say I’m still not sure I “get” him. That makes him all the more fascinating because I can’t say I’ve had this experience with too many other directors. Having watched a few Fassbinder films lately, I understand the core themes on a basic level, but there is still plenty more to unpack. Wim Wenders is the most straightforward to me. Herzog, though. This guy is wild. He is fascinated with man’s ongoing struggles with nature, but I’m always unsure of his perspective. Is he someone who sees man as having too much hubris against an opponent who will obliterate him? Or does he see humanity’s domination of nature as a necessary feat for the species to progress? I lean toward the former more than the latter, but it can be hard to pin this guy down. Herzog does have a sort of hybrid admiration-disgust for insanely ambitious people.

Brian “Fitzcarraldo” Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) is an Irishman living in Iquitos, a small city in the Amazon Basin of Peru, during the rubber boom of the early 20th century. He is known in wealthy circles as a dreamer who went bust when trying to build Trans-Andean railways. Fitz is an obsessive lover of opera, and his attendance at a show by Caruso sparks a dream of building an opera house in this region, but that will take a lot of money he doesn’t have. The rubber industry seems like a good option, but almost every patch of viable land has been claimed. One spot remains on the Ucayali River, which is nearly impossible because of the harsh rapids. Fitz examines a map and discovers a small area where the land narrows between the Ucayali & Pachitea Rivers. 

Fitz’s lover, Molly (Claudia Cardinale), is a successful brothel madam who fronts him the cash to buy an old steamship and hire a crew. The Pachitea is known to be the territory of some aggressive tribes who don’t like white outsiders coming through. Then when they reach the narrow strip of land, they find it is a decently imposing mountain, something a bit hard to get a multi-ton riverboat over. But they do it, and it is one of the most spectacular things I’ve seen pulled off in a movie. No special effects. They built what they needed out of trees and vines and managed to move the ship from one river over a slightly flattened mountain to the other.

Firstly, the hype about Klaus Kinski being an unhinged madman is not reality. I think behind the scenes, he was a massive prick, but you don’t see that on screen. He plays Fitz as eccentric but still noble in intent. There are some silly scenes, mainly when Fitz uses a Victrola to play opera and bring the violent natives over to his side. There is a sort of mystic madness in the character’s eyes which you could relate to fascist attitudes. The way he treats the natives, who eventually become a core part of his crew and construction operation, speaks to his supremacy mindset. He doesn’t see them as his equals but as tools that he should use to further his goals. 

Part of the mystique around the movie has been the meta-narrative, how Fitz’s journey down the river parallels Herzog’s mad quest to make this movie despite the impossible odds. It plays into the director’s ongoing themes of “great dreamers.” However, the film doesn’t make any coherent attempt to grapple with the nature of how Fitz (and Herzog) accomplishes this remarkable feat. Instead, it’s through the back-breaking labor of the native people. Some moments serve as asides, such as when a couple workers are crushed as the boat slides backward. However, the film doesn’t dwell on that for long, and the aftermath doesn’t hinder the overall quest. 

I could see an argument that Herzog was being subtle with his criticism of Fitz. However, the film’s final shot undercuts any critique, in my opinion. That last scene is celebratory. Fitz returns having conquered the rivers & mountains, bringing in the rubber he will sell to fund his dream. It certainly doesn’t feel like a condemnation of European exploitation of indigenous people. Herzog has a troubling strain of “divine right” thinking. He has told a story that the first camera he ever picked up to shoot film was one he stole, saying, “I just knew I was meant to have a camera.” I don’t necessarily care if one steals a camera, but the mindset carries over into this film. Unlike the conquistadors of Aguirre, who get their comeuppance from the wilderness, Fitz conquers it. He wins. Even if Herzog were to acknowledge that Fitz is an exploiter, he is also one himself. The native people featured in this movie barely have much of a voice or are recognized as human beings. They are there in Fitz’s (and Herzog’s?) mind to help him achieve his goal. 

Fitzcarraldo is a film very much worth watching. It is as ambitious as people have said. Kinski’s performance is just the right amount of crazy. The whole thing has a hypnotic air about it. Yet, it is at odds with itself. Herzog is wrestling with the idea of ambition and not paying full attention to the conclusions many in the audience will draw while watching it. At its release, I’m not surprised there was a lack of heavy criticism for exploiting the native people. That was a time when Westerners still didn’t care much. They barely do today. I think this does deserve its place among the hallowed halls of “great cinema,” but not without some footnotes.


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