Sunday, March 11, 2012

Moving the Mountain

Film: Fitzcarraldo
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.


  1. This comment isn't about your post. Sorry. I wanted to give you a heads up on Netflix Instant. Bob le Flambeur and Wild Reeds are disappearing from Instant viewing on March 15th.

    I put all the streaming-available films from the 1,001 list that I haven't seen (around 80) into my Instant queue. I noticed today that four of mine are expiring - the two above, plus Alphaville and The Servant, which you've seen according to your list.

  2. Thanks for the heads up. I think both of those are still available on Hulu+, but I check the instant queue at least twice a week for the same reason.

  3. I believe, but can't prove, that the pattern with Netflix Instant is that movies go away at the middle and end of each month, with a warning a few days ahead of time for any in our queues. Of course, if none of the expiring movies are in my queue I won't notice it happening other times.

    I go out each Sunday to see what new DVDs are available and I try to remember to check my Instant queue for expiring movies, which is how I happened to notice them.

    I've seen Alphaville, Bob le Flambeur and The Servant so far. I'm off to see Wild Reeds soon.

  4. Sadly for me, I'm right at the end of a quarter at work, which means my viewing drops to nil. Oh well--some of these will just wind up on the DVD queue instead.

  5. "Kinski never so much looked like he was acting, but like he was channeling the character he was set to play. "

    So true!

    This movie is crazy in itself. Magnificent. I know I've got that Herzog documentary about Kinski at home and I really feel the urge to check it out after reading this.

  6. In a lot of ways, it feels like this movie was designed specifically for Kinski--but a lot of his characters seemed to be fueled by an insane obsession.

  7. I had high expectations for Fitzcarraldo based on praise from all corners, and while I admired the ambition and technical efforts gone into the making, I just found the pacing of the film tedious,(which was probably intended to feel like a slow builing up of suspense), and I commited the cardinal cinephile sin of fast-forwarding over much of the film.
    Perhaps I'm a tough cookie to please, who knows!

  8. Hmm. I can see that, I suppose. There's no doubt that Fitzcarraldo is a slow mover. That, though, is what I like about it. The movie feels in a way firmly related to the rivers it takes place on--it is perhaps serene on the surface, but it is similarly always rushing forward and always implacable.

  9. The Germans are very used to dubbing and when you watch movies in Germany, you get the impression that the entire world speak German. So, the dubbing in Fitzcarraldo is par for the course but grated on practically every body else

    1. I'm not a fan of dubbing in general, although I understand why it's used in a lot of cases. The main time I don't mind it is with animation.