“The land where God did not finish creation” – Fitzcarraldo.
Recently when I reviewed The Omen (1976) I mentioned the cursed production that film endured. The production of Fitzcarraldo (1982) whilst not cursed in the same way was probably a more tortured production, one which spawned the infamous making of doco Burden of Dreams (1982). Of course that old cliché that there is a fine line between genius and insanity probably holds more truth than many of us would care to admit. Director Werner Herzog and his leading man Klaus Kinski straddled that line through their whole careers and in reality probably spent large swathes of time on either side of it, which is certainly a recipe for on-set fireworks.
In reality though, little of Herzog and Kinski’s on-set warring permeates the film on screen which is assuredly made with none of the raggedness you would expect from such a production. The story focuses on the character of Brian Sweeney ‘Fitzcarraldo’ Fitzgerald, played by Kinski, a man who desires above all else to build an opera house deep in the Amazon. He wants it with such a manic fervour that his desire has in a way broken him and sent him over the edge. For Fitzgerald, opera “gives expression to our deepest feelings” and that is something he is desperate to be able to share with all those he comes into contact with. In a get rich quick scheme he decides to travel up the Amazon in order to claim a patch of rubber trees. It is an arduous journey which culminates in transporting his huge ship straight over a huge mountain. So much of Fitzcarraldo feels like a Western. Iquitos is referred to as a frontier town. Brian and his lover Molly, who runs a bordello are very much the new outsiders in this slightly lawless place. Not only because they are not locals, but because they also do not fit in with the other blow-ins who are mostly ultra-rich rubber barons. Then there is the long perilous journey into the unknown where the ‘natives’ pose a serious threat. Not only that, the journey is for territory that can hopefully be exploited for wealth.
Having said all of that though, there is no doubting that the psychological side of this film is like no Western that has ever been made and in a good way, it is kind of hard to work out exactly what Fitzcarraldo is truly about. Going into it, I thought it was about a dude trying to carry a boat over towering mountains. That is part of it, but it takes over an hour and a half to get to that part of the story. It is also I guess a film about opera, a form I know next to nothing about. Or perhaps it is more-so about the transformative power of art. Sometimes I feel a similar fervour for film that Fitzgerald feels for opera. The quote above is one from right near the start of the film and accompanies a wide shot of the jungle, which is immediately contrasted with a palatial house. This is also in part what the film is about, the clash of cultures and the exploitation of cultures by Western influences. There is for so long in the film a forcing of ideas on the indigenous population of the Amazon. But in a crushing sequence, probably not in the way you would expect, the locals have their stark revenge when both the viewer, and the characters in the film, perhaps least expect it. In the end though, the film is a nigh on indescribable fever dream simultaneously serious, psychological, weird, absurdist and bold whilst all these elements crash into and tear at one another.
Fitzcarraldo is essential viewing for any fan of Herzog and is one of his best fictional features. The film is complete with stunning visuals as the massive, battered vessel travels first along the river and then over a mountain. These visuals are the backdrop for a psychologically challenging journey that will make you think, ponder and puzzle.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
2014 Progress: 17/101