Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald is an eccentric, opera-loving entrepreneur who runs a struggling ice factory in Amazonian Peru but dreams of bigger things. Known as Fitzcarraldo by the locals, his last scheme – building a railroad through the rain forests – may have failed, but his next project is even pottier – to construct an opera house deep in the heart of the jungle.
The stories behind the production of Fitzcarraldo are as well known as the plot of the film itself, and it’s sometimes hard to separate one from the other. In casting Klaus Kinski as the title character (replacing Jason Robards who fell ill on set), Werner Herzog renewed the tempestuous relationship that the pair had endured over three previous collaborations. But as good an actor as Robards is, there can be little doubt that Kinski was the perfect choice for the role, that nervous energy and obsessive, half-crazed expression channelled into a character that, while based on a real man, seems half Kinski and half Herzog.
The only person who supports Fitzcarraldo is his grand plans is his devoted lover, brothel mistress Molly (Claudia Cardinale). But even she, with her influence amongst the local moneymen, cannot help Fitzcarraldo raise the money he needs to build his Amazon opera house. So our hero devises an equally challenging fund-raising scheme. Observing how much money there is to made from local rubber production, Fitzcarraldo uses Molly’s savings to buy a piece of the jungle previous ignored by other developers on account of its inaccessibility by both land and water and sets off down river on a recently-purchased boat to claim his property.
The half-hour leading up to Fitzcarraldo’s departure is important in establishing both the story and his character, but it’s his voyage down the Amazon that really brings the film to life. Thomas Mauch’s cinematography is magnificent, capturing the boat against a variety of backdrops – a beautiful sunset, a moody, overcast sky, the dead of night – and the interplay between Fitzcarraldo and his hastily assembled crew provides much amusement. They really are a hopeless lot – the captain (Paul Hittscher) has terrible eyesight, the cook (Huerequeque Enrique Bohorquez) is permanently drunk, while engineer Cholo (Miguel Ángel Fuentes) seems constantly on the verge of hurting someone. And the rest of the hands jump ship as soon as they hear the chants and beating drums of the local Indian natives, leaving this bizarre quartet alone with the potentially murderous locals.
It is here that the film leaves the realm of the unusual and enters the unique. The next part of Fitzcarraldo’s grand scheme is revealed – with the help of the Indians, he plans to literally move his ship across dry land, over a steep hill and down the other side into the adjacent river, where he can begin his rubber production. And with an obsessive zeal equal to that of his main character, Herzog creates this incredible spectacle for real, as the Indians construct a series of pulleys and the boat is slowly, tortuously moved up the incline.
It’s hardly spoiling the ending to reveal that there’s no jungle opera house by the film’s end, but Fitzcarraldo is not a movie about success. It’s a testament to obsessive love – in the character’s case opera, in the director’s, the very possibilities of filmmaking. The Amazonian setting is magnificent and it’s difficult not to be stirred as Fitzcarraldo sails down the river, standing proudly on board his ship as an old turntable plays the voice of Enrico Caruso, his most beloved opera singer. There aren’t many films like Fitzcarraldo – the scale of the enterprise and its tortuous production alone make it a formidable achievement; that the end result was one of the decade’s greatest films is nothing short of miraculous.
Eccentric German writer/director known equally for his brilliant visionary style and tortuous filming techniques. After several years struggling financially to launch himself as a filmmaker, Herzog began his career with the wartime drama Lebenszeichen and surreal comedy Even Dwarfs Started Small. But it was the stunning 1972 jungle adventure Aguirre, Wrath of God that brought him international acclaim and began his tempestuous working relationship with Klaus Kinski. The 1975 period fable Heart of Glass featured an almost entirely hypnotised cast, while other Herzog classics from this era include Stroszek, the gothic horror Nosferatu the Vampyre and the spectacular, notoriously expensive epic Fitzcarraldo.