Fitzcarraldo (1982) ***1/2
Directed by Werner Herzog
Written by Werner Herzog
Klaus Kinski as Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald - 'Fitzcarraldo'
José Lewgoy as Don Aquilino
Miguel Ángel Fuentes as Cholo
Paul Hittscher as Captain
Huerequeque Enrique Bohorquez as Huerequeque (The Cook)
158 Minutes(Rated PG)
I think I got lucky that the IFC Center in Manhattan is doing a week long re-issue of the Werner Herzog movie "Fitzcarraldo," because I don't think there is any other way to see this than on the big screen. Herzog has always been about visuals, and even though I find him to be a better documentary filmmaker than a fiction storyteller, he always makes me feel like I'm watching a documentary. From the amazing achieve footage in "The Wild Blue Yonder," to turning an awful remake of "Nosferatu" into a look at nature and some pretty cool footage of bats, Herzog is always showing me something neat. And "Fitzcarraldo" is not exception. Maybe a little longer than it should, and maybe not the best narrative in years, but there are some sequences in this film where you will literally have your mouth open, asking yourself "How did they do that?" This was made well before computers were brought out onto the screen, so you know for a fact that someone Herzog pulled this all off. More on that later.
In the IFC Center program calender book, there is a small blurb about "Fitzcarraldo," and at the bottom of the summary there is a quote by Herzog himself. It reads:
"I live my life or end my life by this project."
This line pretty much works for the main character in the film, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, who also goes by Fitzcarraldo. Now Fitzcarraldo has a woman of his dreams and a life in the Peruvian jungle, but there is something that he loves more than anything: the opera. He loves the opera so much that he will take a 1,000 mile boat ride to the nearest opera house to see a show-even at the expense of his hands. And so what he wants to do more than anything is bring opera to the people in the jungle, and he decides that what he wants to do is build an opera house in the middle of the jungle. And he buys a boat off a wealthy man and takes a crew to go out into the jungle and build the house of his dreams, and get his favorite singer to appear there on the night of its opening.
It's a very simple story, but Herzog fiction is known for that. It's his talent as a film maker to bring us some images that we've never seen before. Now Klaus Kinski plays Fitzcarraldo, a small and rather fragile man with so much energy. I think the only actor that I could really see playing this part or another Kinski role is Willim Dafoe-aside from a similar facial appearance and body structure, they also have a bit of the same personality, and the ability to disappear into various roles and characters. And while Fitzcarraldo is a rather interesting character, I think the best character in this film ends up being the boat he buys. This is one of the greatest movie props I've ever seen-a massive triple decker boat which goes through so much at expense of the crew and captain. There is a rather breathtaking sequence about two thirds of the way through where the boat ends up falling on a ditch, and Fitzcarraldo and crew make a series of rails using the bodies of trees to try and pull this boat out again. And this was clearly such an amazing labor of love to shoot, and I knew that all of it was real. Packing up hundreds of extras to do this stunt, I could how Herzog was worried about death while filming this. And these images being so real really do make you feel like you're watching a documentary.
I think that "Fitzcarraldo" is a strong success on the visual front, but as a narrative story being told it fails in its own way. I never felt like Herzog was giving us much dimension to Fitzcarraldo, and there isn't really a story arc to follow. I was never invested in the characters beyond the visuals, but when the major stunts and set pieces begin to appear, it was amazing to behold. Herzog is a genius behind the camera, but even with movies like "Rescue Dawn," which I liked a lot, he tries harder with visual technique than he does with story and character. Luckily "Rescue Dawn" has a massive amount of talent in front of the camera to counter that, but Kinski is really doing a solo job here when it comes to character, and even though he does a great job it's just not enough on that respect.