Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.
There’s something about film as a medium that lends it to the depictions of extremes. When it comes to obsessions revealed on film, I have a tendency to think of Klaus Kinski, since he seemed to have a penchant for playing extreme characters. While certainly Aguirre from Aguirre: Der Zorn Gottes comes to mind, my thoughts first go to Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, the title character from Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.
Our title character, so named because the natives in South America are unable to pronounce “Fitzgerald” is a man on a singular mission, a man with a unique dream. We first encounter him as he and his paramour Molly (Claudia Cardinale) arrive from a thousand-plus mile boat trip down the Amazon to hear Caruso sing. This moment becomes one of obsession for him. He determines then and there to build an opera house in Iquitos, Peru, and to have it open with a Caruso performance.
Of course, that takes enormous wealth, and nothing he has tried yet has worked. His first attempt at wealth was building a trans-Andean railroad. His current plan is the production of ice. However, he realizes that this will not get him the money he needs, so he decides to do what everyone around him is doing—farm rubber. However, all of the good lands are taken. Studying a map, he comes to the realization that there is a great deal of rubber tree land that is currently inaccessible thanks to a series of ferocious and difficult rapids that threaten to destroy any ship that crosses them.
But this will not stop him. Using that same map, he realizes that there is a spot where the navigable river and the inaccessible river are separated by a narrow piece of land. His idea, then, is to buy a huge boat, sail it up river, and then drag the ship over the mountain, allowing access to the rich rubber trees and bypassing the rapids. It’s a bold plan, especially considering that they’ll need to rely on hostile natives for the labor and because the ship itself weighs a good 300 tons.
Fitzcarraldo’s quest is further hampered by the desertion of his crew. When he does finally encounter the natives, he’s down to just himself, his captain (Paul Hittscher), Cholo the engineer (Miguel Angel Fuentes), and Huerequeque the drunk cook (Huerequeque Enrique Bohorquez). But it turns out that the natives are impressed with the ship as well as Fitzcarraldo’s impressive shock of yellow hair, and they agree to help drag the ship over the top of the mountain.
It surprising just how long Herzog drags this out before we really get to this important plot point. Fitzcarraldo doesn’t let on that that is his plan until a good 90 minutes of the film have passed. And yet it’s surprisingly effective and entertaining up to that point. This is not a slow movie despite the fact that it reveals its secrets at such a sedate pace.
Kinski’s performance is central to the film, of course, and as is usually the case, or at least in my experience, it is a great one. Kinski never so much looked like he was acting, but like he was channeling the character he was set to play. Fitzgerald is an entirely believable creation not despite his obsession with Caruso and building an opera house but because of it. He has the single-minded determination of this goal that gives it a ring of truth. Fitzcarraldo is a true believer, using the power of his victrola and his Carruso records to placate the natives and get them to work for his cause. And so it works. This last hour of the movie, which involves the literal moving of the ship over the mountain between the rivers is perhaps what is most memorable from the film. It’s worth noting, though, that this portion of the film takes up only the last section. Even when we discover Fitzcarraldo’s plan, there is a significant passage of time before the boat leaves the water.
I know little of the story of the creation of this film, but I do know that it is evidently the stuff of legend. Herzog and Kinski had a notoriously stormy relationship, but films like this one indicate that the two also brought out the best in each other. Fitzcarraldo requires some focus to watch in that there’s an immediate disconnect here because the bulk of the film is in German. It just feels like it should be in a different language. It’s essentially the same problem I had with Aguirre: Der Zorn Gottes. It’s also fortunately a problem that is easily forgotten after the first ten minutes or so.
Why to watch Fitzcarraldo: A tale of magnificent obsession.
Why not to watch: Klaus Kinski is a scary looking mo-fo.