Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 1/14/07 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.
Written and directed by Werner Herzog, Fitzcarraldo is the fourth and possibly, the greatest collaboration between Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski. The film tells the story of a man, in the turn of the century, who has dreams of bringing the opera to the masses as he and his companions go on a steamboat to the Amazon where at one point, he tries to take the boat over a mountain in order to get to the other side of the river. One of the most ambitious films of the 1980s, the film is shot on location in the Amazon as Herzog tells the story of a dreamer trying to achieve the impossible as Kinski plays the title role of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald aka Fitzcarraldo. Also starring Claudia Cardinale, Jose Lewgoy, Paul Hittscher, and Peter Berling. Fitzcarraldo is a sprawling, magnificent film from Werner Herzog and its star, Klaus Kinski.
Living in the small town of Iquitos at the Amazon in Peru, Fitzcarraldo and his wife Molly (Claudia Cardinale) arrive at an opera house to hear the voice of Enrico Caruso. After meeting the opera manager (Peter Berling), Fitzcarraldo announces he wants to stage a grand opera in Iquitos though many laugh as Fitzcarraldo wants to prove everyone that he'll do it. Though Molly runs a brothel and Fitzcarraldo produces ice in different parts of the town, he attends a party with several rubber barons as they all mock Fitzcarraldo with the exception of Don Aquilino (Jose Lewgoy). Aquilino wants a piece of unclaimed land down south in the Ucayala Falls that he needs to exploit it. The only reason it had been unclaimed was due to dangerous rapids on the other side called Pongo das Mortes as Fitzcarraldo gets a map where the only way through is to go to the Pachitea river that features a group of dangerous tribes. Fitzcarraldo makes a deal with Aquilino to do the job as he and Molly buy Aquilino's old steamboat with his mechanic Cholo (Miguel Angel Fuentes). With a crew that includes the drunk cook Huerequeque (Hurequeque Enrique Bohorquez) and a Dutch captain named Orinoco Paul (Paul Hittscher), Fitzcarraldo is on his way to get funding for his opera.
Fitzcarraldo and his crew of the newly repaired steamboat named Molly Aida make way upstream towards the Pachitea around the Amazon. Stopping at an old railroad station that Fitzcarraldo owned, the team gets rails as Fitzcarraldo ensures the old station manager (Grande Otelo) that the railroad will be restored. After an encounter with two priests (Dieter Milz and Salvador Godinez) about the tribe, Huerequeque reveals to know a lot about the tribe where Fitzcarraldo and crew continue to trek towards the sinister Pachitea as things become tense when the tribe's music is heard. Fitzcarraldo counters it with the voice of Enrico Caruso where Huerequeque reveals a myth about a man in white who might rid of the evil that's been surrounded. With some of the crew, except for Cholo, Paul, and Huerequeque, having left the boat due to this curse, Fitzcarraldo and the remaining crew encounter the tribe who believe Fitzcarraldo is the man that they believe will lift the evil spirits away from their land.
After observing the land and its beauty, Fitzcarraldo needs to get back to Iquitos only to realize the tribe has blocked the way in the Pachitea stream forcing Fitzcarraldo to make a daring plan by dragging the ship to the other side. The only way to get to the Ucayala falls is to go to the other side as Fitzcarraldo has a strange plan of dragging the steamship from one side of the mountain to the other. Despite months of work and everything else including false starts that proved to be fatal, Fitzcarraldo at first seemed defeated but his drive to dream the impossible makes him determined as he hopes to do the impossible, even if he has to go through the cursed rapids of the Pongo das Mortes.
Easily the most ambitious and grandest of Herzog's films, Fitzcarraldo is truly Herzog in every shape and form from its conflict of man vs. nature to doing the impossible. The film is about dreamers achieving what could be impossible and the result is truly magnificent in every frame shot. While the film does have similarities to another Herzog film, 1972's Aguirre, the Wrath of God, about a dark journey in the Amazon river, where both Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo embark on dark, treacherous journeys into the heart of the Amazon. Unlike the doomed, manic Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo has an innocence and determination that's more human as he embarks on this journey just to have this crazy dream of bringing the Grand Opera to a little poor town of Amazon natives. Still, this film is really about Herzog himself, who manages to do something impossible and succeeds in the end. Really, the film is about the experience of doing something to achieve a destiny that many refuse to believe in.
Herzog's screenplay is wonderfully structured in the first act being about Fitzcarraldo wanting to bring an opera to Iquitos despite those against him while the second is about the journey into the Amazon. The third and most climatic act is about that ship being dragged on top of a mountain and the journey afterwards in which Fitzcarraldo has become a character that's more human in everything he's experienced. It's really due to Herzog's ability to portray man in a way that's he is completely relatable to anyone that is a dreamer. Fitzcarraldo is really every person who has a dream and wants to achieve it. It's his most personal and its filled with a lot of heart and joy, it's truly Herzog at his finest.
Herzog's direction is also ambitious by shooting the film entirely on location in Iquitos and parts of the Amazon. Herzog, known for his work in documentary, brings a documentary-like feel to the film where the audience isn't sure what's going to happen or if a character like Fitzcarraldo is going to succeed. Then there's the climatic scene of the steamboat being dragged on top of a mountain. The steamboat is real and this really happened. No film or film director has done something like this by actually doing something with a cast of hundreds of people including a few accomplished actors giving into the emotions and everything that could go wrong or could go right. It's a very unpredictable film as Herzog really pulls on all the stops and sees what he can come up with as he delivers a knockout of a film. Plus, it should be noted that Hollywood has probably never done something like this nor would they since they can't work with someone as fearless and as driven as Werner Herzog.
Cinematographer Thomas Mauch brings a wonderful visual scope to the landscape of the Amazon in its beauty and treachery with wonderful, long shots of the boat in the river during sunset. Mauch's photography is exquisite and harrowing in its documentary-style where it adds all sorts of poetic imagery to the film's exterior look of the Amazon while adding some wonderful shadows and lighting style to the film's interior scenes in Iquitos. Editor Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus does wonderful work in the editing in bring a nice, elliptical pace to the film and long cuts to reveal a scene in its 157-minute running time. Production designers Henning von Gierke and Ulrich Bergfelder do wonderful work in creating the posh houses of the barons and opera managers while doing extensive work on the steamboat which serves as a great character. Costume designer Gisela Storch does great work in the film's costumes for the first act from the period dresses that Claudia Cardinale wore to the white suit that Klaus Kinski wears throughout the entire film. Sound recordists Juarez Dagoberto Costa and Zeze d'Alice do excellent work in capturing the sounds of the Amazon, including one great scene of the tribal drumming mixed in with the opera music in one scene.
Longtime collaborators Popol Vuh and its leader Florian Fricke bring a wonderfully operatic, atmospheric score filled with guitar, choir-like vocal arrangements, and melodic textures that adds a lot of dream-like quality to some of the film's scenery. With a mix of traditional, tribal music, the soundtrack is filled with a lot of opera cuts from Richard Strauss, Vincenzo Bellini, Giacomo Puccini, and Guiseppe Verdi. The soundtrack is wonderfully amazing and the mixing of tribal and opera makes total perfect sense in its rhythm and intensity.
The film's casting is truly inspiring since a lot of the natives and locals in Iquitos were used for realism while David Perez Espinosa is given a memorable performance as the tribal chief along with notable small performances from Dieter Milz, Salvador Godinez, Grande Otelo, and from Aguirre, Peter Berling. Huerequeque Enrique Bohorquez is hilarious as the drunkard cook whose crazy idea of how to get the ship on top of the mountain is pure comedy as he brings humor to some of the film's tense moments. Miguel Angel Fuentes is excellent, skillful mechanic Cholo whose awareness of the Amazon makes him a wonderful supporting character in making sure that Fitzcarraldo does what he is yearning for. Paul Hittscher is great as the weary but experienced captain who is really the moral conscious of the film as he wonders if he, Fitzcarraldo, and their crew are doing the right thing. Jose Lewgoy is good as Don Aquilino who helps Fitzcarraldo fund his big dream while showing what he must do in order to achieve it. Though she's only in half of the film, Claudia Cardinale is excellent as Molly, who is the great supporter of Fitzcarraldo while believing that he can do it as she really serves her role very well.
Finally, there's Klaus Kinski in what has to be one of his greatest performance ever in film. Unlike the madness of Aguirre, the creepiness of Dracula in Nosferatu, or the fragility of Franz Woyzeck, Kinski brings a newfound sense of innocence into playing the title character of Fitzcarraldo. While Woyzeck showed his range as an actor, Kinski gives Fitzcarraldo something that audiences can relate to as a dreamer who wants to bring something for those around him. Kinski adds a complexity of emotions as a man who is aware he has to face realism where he nearly breaks and often ponders if he will fail or succeed. Kinski brings a maturity and wisdom to a man that is flawed and complex as Fitzcarraldo and this is truly the best performance he did in the films with Herzog.
***DVD Contents Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 1/30/07***
The Region 1 DVD, from the 2000 Herzog-Kinski box set from Anchor Bay, presents the film in the widescreen format of 1:85:1 ratio for 16x9 TVs along with 5.1 Dolby Digital and Surround Sound for both German and English with English subtitles. The special features includes the film's theatrical trailer in German plus the talent bios of Herzog, Kinski, and the music group Popol Vuh, and a still gallery featuring promotional shots, behind-the-scenes photos, and posters. The audio commentary track from Herzog, Norman Hill, and producer Lucki Stipetic is one of the most sobering commentaries into the making of the film which was notorious and revealed more deeply in Les Blank's 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams.
Herzog downplays the film's notorious troubles while admitting to some of the infamous ongoings. At one point, his cinematographer Thomas Mauch injured his hand during the shooting of the boat in the rapids due to the boat's collision with the rocks. In that same sequence, a cameraman, shooting from the bank of river was left out and angry at Herzog for being left behind. Herzog talks about his trouble with Kinski during the shoot since Kinski would often freak out in scenes with animals or anything that was going on during the shoot and Herzog had a hard time to calm him down. Herzog gives praise to Claudia Cardinale for being one of the few to calm down Kinski and making him smile on camera. It's one of the best commentaries that reveals the troubled nature and accusations Herzog had received during the film.
***End of DVD Tidbits
Fitzcarraldo is truly one of the most ambitious and spectacular films that delivers and more that could only come from the mind of Werner Herzog. Featuring a towering performance from Klaus Kinski, it is truly a film like no other that is out there. Notably as it actually does the impossible by actually dragging a steamship on top of a mountain. It's definitely one of those films that anyone who has never seen a Werner Herzog film must see for its sense of ambition and willingness to do whatever to tell a grand story. In the end, Fitzcarraldo is a marvelous film from Werner Herzog and its star Klaus Kinski.
Werner Herzog Films: Feature Films: (Signs of Life) - (Even the Dwarfs Started Small) - (Fatana Morgana) - Aguirre, the Wrath of God - (The Enigma of Kasper Hauer) - (Heart of Glass) - Stroszek - Nosferatu, the Vampyre - Woyzeck - (Where the Green Ants Dream) - Cobra Verde - (Scream of Stone) - (Lessons of Darkness) - (Invincible (2001 film)) - (The Wild Blue Yonder) - Rescue Dawn - (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) - (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) - Queen of the Desert
Documentaries: (The Flying Doctors of East Africa) - (Handicapped Future) - (Land of Silence and Darkness) - (The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner) - (How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck) - (La Soufrière) - (Huie's Sermon) - (God's Angry Man) - (Ballad of the Little Soldier) - (The Dark Glow of the Mountains) - (Wodaabe – Herdsmen of the Sun) - (Echoes from a Somber Empire) - (Jag Mandir) - (Bells from the Deep) - (The Transformation of the World into Music) - (Death for Five Voices) - (Little Dieter Needs to Fly) - My Best Fiend - (Wings of Hope) - (Pilgrimage) - (Ten Thousand Years Older) - (Wheel of Time) - (The White Diamond) - Grizzly Man - Encounters at the End of the World - Cave of Forgotten Dreams - (Into the Abyss) - (On Death Row) - From One Second to the Next
Related Review: Burden of Dreams
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