Fitzcarraldo‘s troubled creation precedes it. Almost any review of the film mentions one or more of the following: director Werner Herzog reshot the film from scratch with actor Klaus Kinski after original lead Jason Robards dropped out for health concerns; Kinski’s intensely violent quarreling with Herzog and the crew; Herzog filming a scene onboard a steamship as it crashes down the rapids of the Pongo de Mainique, injuring three of the six; and, finally, manually hauling the same 300+ ton steamship over a large hill by hand without the use of any special effects.
Reputation aside, Fitzcarraldo is an excellent movie on its own. Kinski is Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, an Irishman living in Peru around the turn of the 20th century. Fitz–as his lover Molly (Claudia Cardinale) calls him–is an intense supporter of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, so much that he dreams of building an opera house in the remote city Iquitos so that the opera singer can perform in the Amazon.
To fund his dream, he buys the deed to a rubber-saturated area of the Amazon and plans to exploit it. He also purchases a steam-powered ship to transport the valuable resource, hiring a rag-tag crew to run the boat. The catch is that the land is inaccessible by river (impassible rapids!) and land (cannibals!). But Fitz has a plan, impossible as it may seem.
Herzog fills much of the film with long, steady shots of water or jungle–and it never feels unnecessary or out of place. Or boring, for that matter. The landscape is as much a character as Fitz or Paul (Paul Hittscher), the ship’s patient Dutch captain. At one point in the film, the crew of the steam ship arrive at the remains of Fitz’s last failed money-making scheme: a Trans-Andean railway. Rails and steam engines are entwined with overgrown vegetation, the rusted husks of rail cars and flatbeds glistening shabbily in the hot sun. The camera lazily hangs on the crew as they salvage metal for their trip downriver; the scene is not necessarily advancing a plot point, but instead giving the movie’s silent co-star more screen time.
Kinski plays Fitz with a simmering intensity, more subtle than some of his other efforts with Herzog. His eyes leap out above his crooked smile, and his tangled shock of hair pairs perfectly with the white suit that Fitz soils gradually over the film’s course. One could assume that Fitz’s dreams are that of a madman, but the movie never suggests this. Not does Herzog imply that Fitz is a genius. Maybe he’s somewhere in between? Or both?
One of the film’s most indelible scenes–and there are many–has Fitz standing atop the moving steamboat, cranking Caruso out of his phonograph. The noise from the cannibals in the jungle eventually drifts off, and Fitz’s smile spreads. Is he a madman or genius? Fitz is so moved by the beauty of Caruso’s art that maybe the question doesn’t matter.
-Directed and written by Werner Herzog
-Cinematography by Thomas Mauch
-Cast: Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), Molly (Claudia Cardinale), Orinoco Paul (Paul Hittscher), Don Aquilino (Jose Lewgoy), Huerequeque (Huerequeque Enrique Bohorquez), Cholo (Miguel Angel Fuentes)
-Runtime: 158 minutes
-Rated PG (USA)