REVIEW: DVD Release: Fitzcarraldo

Film: Fitzcarraldo
Release date: 21st May 2007
Certificate: PG
Running time: 151 mins
Director: Werner Herzog
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, José Lewgoy, Miguel Ángel Fuentes, Paul Hittscher
Genre: Adventure/Drama
Studio: Anchor Bay
Format: DVD
Country: Peru/West Germany

Over the years, there have been many actor/director collaborations of note: Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese; and Toshirō Mifune and Akira Kurosawa are a couple of the better known examples. However, few have been as intense and impassioned as the work undertaken by director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski. Continually at odds with each other, with Herzog allegedly having to direct Kinski at gunpoint for parts of their first collaboration Aguirre, Wrath Of God (1972), they managed to make four more films together. Of the five films – including a remake of the silent classic Nosferatu with Kinski as Dracula in 1979 – the most infamously arduous, and perhaps most rewarding is their penultimate effort, Fitzcarraldo.

Set in the Amazonian jungles of Peru, European entrepreneur Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Kinski) – referred to as Fitzcarraldo by the locales – dreams of bringing his foremost love of opera to the town of Iquitos by building a grand opera house, and having the work of his favourite tenor Enrico Caruso play there.

Being the owner of the defunct Trans-Andean railway company, the town’s tycoons – many of whom enjoying success in the booming rubber industry – are quick to ridicule and dismiss Fitzcarraldo as an eccentric dreamer. Only successful brothel owner and lover Molly (Claudia Cardinale) believes in him.

To raise the capital required, Fitzcarraldo investigates setting himself up in the rubber business. With the help of rubber industrialist and friend Don Aquilino (José Lewgoy), Fitzcarraldo finds a section of land unclaimed by the rubber companies because of its inaccessibility - cut off from boat travel because of a treacherous stretch of rapids. With Molly’s financial assistance, Fitzcarraldo buys a three storey steam boat from Aquilino, and assembles a crew to venture out to the unreachable part of the jungle with an unorthodox plan…

Despite the innumerable problems with the film’s production (unpredictable weather; losing original lead actor Jason Robards halfway through due to a bout of dysentery, and having to start the film from scratch with Kinski; getting caught in the middle of violent disputes between the local Amazonian tribes being used as extras; not to mention dwindling morale from a disheartened crew), Fitzcarraldo miraculously manages to disguise these destructive elements, and presents a serene and frequently beautiful journey about one man’s unflinching obsession.

Regardless of the fisty-cuffs that may have occurred off-camera with Herzog, Kinski easily delivers one of his finest performances – based on real-life rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald – with a quiet intensity that never gets too hammy or pretentious. His Fitzcarraldo is a man with a seemingly indestructible spirit, whose determination in realising his dream peaks during the film’s famous centrepiece, where hundreds of native tribes people drag his 300 tonne steamboat over a mountain to avoid the perilous rapids.

Lewgoy’s Don Aquilino and Cardinale’s Molly also stand out lending the film an ensemble feeling, as opposed to it being merely a vehicle for Kinski’s occasional scenery chewing, which is very much restrained here.

Kinski’s subtle yet energetic performance ensures that the film’s languid two-and-a-half hour run time, whilst obviously long, never drags. Fitzcarraldo’s steamboat drifts serenely through miles of unspoilt jungle; a small beacon of civilisation in an otherwise savage world, creating a sense of isolation and foreboding that simply could not be achieved in a slapdash ninety-minute edit. Herzog manages to create a strong sense of a journey being undertaken, with the film’s length allowing such progression to evolve unhurried.

Herzog’s camera is simultaneously passive and active; lingering on an image the one minute and exploring as much as possible the next - revealing inherent beauties that would otherwise go unnoticed. Fitzcarraldo’s steamboat (christened Molly after its benefactor) becomes a character in itself; a clear symbol for man’s impact on nature, especially when Fitzcarraldo and his army of tribesmen – eager to assist who they mistake to be a white god travelling on the divine vessel – cut down hundreds of yards of jungle to clear a path for the boat’s slow journey over the mountain, which is achieved through building a complex network of winches made from the cut down trees.

The iconic boat pulling sequence – the scene that is synonymous with the film – is indeed very impressive to see unfold - from clearing the path to dragging the ship up through the mud hillside. It may be interesting to note that this was all done for real by Herzog and his cast and crew, with a bit of motorised assistance. In fact, the entirety of the film was done for real. Everything was shot on location in the Amazon, and on a real boat giving the story a weathered realism that simply couldn’t be replicated on a sound stage. This, coupled with Herzog’s vérité style camerawork, suggests an almost documentarian execution that makes the transpiring events even more engrossing to watch. We want Fitzcarraldo to succeed against the obstacles placed before him, making the film’s eventual denouncement all the more involving and emotional.

Fitzcarraldo is proof positive that you don’t need large scale battles for a story to feel epic. Sadly, this kind of filmmaking is a rarity nowadays; moving an entire cast and crew out into the jungle for the best part of a year is a prospect that most modern studio financiers would balk at, but, as a result, you feel as though you’ve been on a very real journey.

Herzog’s quirky humour is also present: the steamboat’s captain working out which tributary they are sailing on by tasting the water, and the image of an opera being transported on a fleet of small boats compete with instruments, performers in costume and false battlements crammed on (and hanging off the sides) are but two of the film’s stranger moments, providing welcome light relief. There are magic realist touches in the form of Fitzcarraldo’s beloved gramophone playing his idol Caruso for all the jungle to hear, with events turning to his favour each time the record is played.

In a way, Fitzcarraldo has some similarities to the positively nightmarish Apocalypse Now (1979) filmed a few years prior, or better still its literary source: Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. Both works feature a group of people travelling up river through unfriendly lands (the Amazon in Fitzcarraldo and the African Congo in Heart Of Darkness) led by a man driven by obsession.

Its dreamy pace may dissuade some viewers, but Fitzcarraldo is a terrific and rewarding cinematic achievement, and a testament to Werner Herzog’s determination to realise his vision, rivalled only by the determination of the film’s eponymous lead. Despite the frequent, sometimes massive setbacks during the film’s production (painfully captured in Les Blanks’ making of Burden Of Dreams, which is included in the 25th Anniversary set), the film is wonderfully executed and remains coherent and interesting until its final satisfying moments. MP

1 comment:

  1. i recommend most of herzog's films but anything he did with kinski was pretty special. a classic combo