Fitzcarraldo is a film that sometimes literally moves mountains. There are no filmmaking “tricks”, no lies or deceit, when the title character forces a tribe of indigenous South American people to do God’s work. The grandeur that ensues is the result of the obsessively insane Fitzcarraldo (embodied by actor Klaus Kinski) and the equally meticulous man behind the camera, director Werner Herzog. It’s a piece of observational cinema cocooned within a straightforward period film, a documentary with acting sprinkled on top. Unfortunately theses metaphorical sprinkles are laid on pretty thick during the film’s opening half hour, which plays out in a slow and phony fashion; nothing quite fascinating happens and the performances are too mechanical and over the top. I almost would have preferred the film’s opening on-screen text to have segue directly to the 40-minute mark and forgo the opening set-up because of how subtractive it was to the overall experience.
The film follows the story of Fitzcarraldo, a dreamer of sorts who is obsessed with the idea of becoming a rubber baron and building an opera house in the Peruvian city of Iquitos. With the financial assistance of his girlfriend and brothel owner Molly (Claudia Cardinale), Fitzcarraldo purchases a rundown river steamboat and secures an inaccessible, untapped parcel of land. Now with everything in order, Fitzcarraldo begins his journey down the Pachitea River. However, in order for his success to come to fruition, he must avoid rough rapids and devise a plan to get the steamboat onto the nearby Ucayali River. This is where the film takes flight, as Fitzcarraldo attempts to navigate the steamboat ashore, drag it over the mountainous landscape that separates the two rivers, and maneuver it into place on the Ucayali.
It’s a shame the film is slow to get going because once it does, it takes a complete 180º turn and becomes one of the most genuine visual quests captured on film. The audacity that eventually breaks through is so powerful because of how the overall conflict is realistically portrayed. There are no miniature effects or computer graphics applied. What you see is what was done. Because of this credible depiction, the themes come to life so seamlessly. At certain times it’s as if the fabric of narrative bows to the ocular documentation of the human condition. No longer is man, nature, and self pitted against each other for the sheer use of devising a plot. Instead, the act of conflict is laid out primitively in a way that is so very distant from conventional filmmaking.
Continuing off of the hallucinatory style previously executed to perfection in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Herzog once again taps into the beauty of the natural world. Joined by cinematographer Thomas Mauch and new age band Popol Vuh, the filmmaker brings together a collaboration that contributes to the awe-inspiring exercise of filmmaking that Fitzcarraldo exemplifies. If there is one sequence to summarize the attitude of the film, it would be the one towards the end of the film of the now even more tattered boat drifting through the river with an orchestra playing on board: it’s majestically chaotic.
Of course, Fitzcarraldo isn’t for everyone. I was even reluctant to carry on watching it after finding no interest in its first few scenes and having a difficult time settling into the odd dialogue replacement (present in both German and English versions despite being mostly filmed in English). Though, for those who exhibit patience, it is a film that can be quite rewarding. Knowing that there will never be a film made like this ever again, it definitely deserves a glance from anyone who considers him or herself a film enthusiast.