Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo is a beautiful constructed masterpiece of gigantic epic proportions and is one of the boldest and bravest films in the history of the cinema. A film project like this could never be made today, because the film-making process that Herzog and his cast and crew endured was grueling, risky and at times life threatening, filming on location in the jungles of South America. The film tells the story about a madman, his love for the opera and who is greatly obsessed with the idea in building an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle. To achieve this he is determined to drag a large boat over a mountain so he is able to cross from one end of the river to another. To achieve this effect Herzog could have used special effects for the scenes of the 360-ton boat being hauled up a steep and dangerous 40-degree slope in the jungle, but he wanted the audience to witness something that was real and authentic; and for them to know that what they were watching was not special effects and the boat was not a fake. The film is based on the famous Irishman Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald and when many people thought of his dreams of an opera house in the jungle was impossible; it was greatly similar to Werner Herzog's dream of creating this film which was greatly doubted by several studios as well. Fitzcarraldo is similar to the beautiful large scope epics like 2001: Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now and the making of the film over the years has also become as legendary as the film itself.
During the early part of the 20th century Brian Sweeney "Fitzcarraldo" Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) and his wife Molly (Claudia Cardinale) has traveled far from their small city in Peru to arrive in Iquitos to see an opera performance by one of Fitzcarraldo's favorite composers Enrico Caruso. The doorman at first wont let the two of them through without tickets and so Fitzcarraldo tells him, "I'm going to build an opera house in Iquitos and Caruso'll open it. It'll be the greatest opera of the jungle. Please, let us in." The doorman eventually agrees to let them in telling Fitzcarraldo that he'd like to be in there as well. After the opera show Fitzcarraldo has a meeting with Enrico Caruso and Enrico finds the name of Fitzcarraldo interesting asking him how he spells it. While talking Fitzarraldo tells him he is the man who runs Trans-Andean Railway but the bold project fell through and failed and so he is now making money at the moment as an ice producer.
"Here all the people want for their money are the big names from Europe," Enrico says. Fitzcarraldo says, "The ice, ah, I mean...I'm doing all this because I have one dream...the opera. The Great Opera in the jungle!" Enrico likes Fitzcarraldo and gives him the tour of his rich palace that has been built with tiles from Delft and Florentine marble. Fitzcarraldo tells Enrico that the village of Iquitos is catching up and it is still filthy but the businesses there are growing rapidly. Fitzcarraldo isn't able to convince Gala of his glorious plans of his opera and he returns home to Peru with his lover Molly who runs a small brothel in Iquitos.
In Peru Fitzcarraldo helps feed the children of poverty and also plays the music of Enrico Caruso to many of the villagers. Fitzcarraldo feeds the children saying, "imagine, one day...ice in every warehouse, on every ship." He goes to meet up with associates trying to sell some of his ice for his creation of his opera house in Iquitos which will require considerable amounts of money. One of his associates mocks Fitzcarraldo and even brings up Fitzcarraldo's one major failure which is the bankrupted and incomplete Trans-Andean railway saying, "What good is ice here? To cool the rubber? Maybe we should magically create some glaciers in the jungle. And then we'll build the Trans-Andean Railroad on sled skids... loosen the brakes...give her a push...and adios! Off she goes, sledding down into the valley?" Fitzcarraldo is disheartened by his associates and business partners looking at him as a joke but Fitzcarraldo has an indomitable spirit and won't give up on his dreams.
Fitzcarraldo makes a personal stand on his dreams and starts to shout to the people in Peru on top of a church ringing the church bell and hysterically yelling, "the church remains closed 'til this town has its opera house. I want the opera house. I want my Opera house!! I will build my opera!!!" Because of his erratic behavior the police barge in the church and arrest Fitzcarraldo and put him behind bars. He gets released early by Molly and later goes to see another associate asking him for some funds for his opera house.
The associate tells Fitzcarraldo, "everyone wants money from me. The hospital, the fire brigade...and now you keep talking my ear off about your opera." Fitzcarraldo tells him that the opera gives expression to their deepest feelings and his associate laughs at his comment as he carelessly throws 1000 dollars in a fish stream and has Fitzcarraldo's watch a fish rise up and eat the money. During the party Molly asks all the guests if her and her husband could have their attention as Fitzcarraldo sets up a speaker and plays Caruso's opera music for the guests at the party.
His associate is angry at Fitzcarraldo's behavior and tries to take the music player away from Fitzcarraldo apologizing to everyone about the interruption. Fitzcarraldo makes a toast to all the great opera singers and his associate mocks Fitzcarraldo by making a toast to him saying, "to Fitzcarraldo, the Conquistador of the Useless! Cheers!" Fitzcarraldo angrily gets in his face and says, "as true as I am standing here, one day I shall bring the grand opera to Iquitos. I will outnumber you. I will outbillion you. I am the spectacle in the forest. I am the inventor of rubber. I will outrubber you. Sir, the reality of your world is nothing more...than a rotten caricature of great opera."
Molly gets Fitzcarraldo to leave the party because the man is not worth the fight and she tells Fitzcarraldo to forget about ice and focus on rubber because it is the most profitable industry in Peru at the time. Fitzcarraldo knows that to get rubber he needs a big steam-boat, land and workers. Fitzcarraldo decides to see a rubber baron named Don Aquilino and the two of them take a ride out in Don Aquilino's boat and also go out on foot on his land. Fitzcarraldo asks about the Pongo in Ucayali which is considered the rubber region and includes about 14 million trees in an area still unclaimed because of the treacherous rapids of the Pongo das Mortes; that the only way to get there is to fly there.
Don Aquilino tells him, "the indians call the rapids Chirimagua, 'the angry spirits.' Anyone who falls in there is lost." Fitzcarraldo knows that the Pongo is known to contain rubber trees and that the rest have been parceled up by the Peruvian government and are leased for exploitation. If able to reach the Pongo which seems nearly impossible those trees of rubber could make him a fortune which would greatly help him in his creation of the opera house. However when looking at a map of the area Fitcarraldo sees another river called the Pachitea River which is another Amazon tributary that doesn't have treacherous rapids and it eventually comes within several hundred meters to the Ucayali upstream.
Don Aquilino tells him that the Pachitea River is dangerous because there are several savage indians and head hunters down that river. Don Aquilino tells him the dangers of going down the river of Pachitea and that in 1896 a group of surveyors and soldiers got to the upper Pachitea but most of them were murdered by indians; in which two ended up as shrunken heads. Fitzcarraldo ignores these warnings about the savage indians and develops a plan to reach that point where the two rivers nearly meet and with his crew's manpower they can physically pull a boat across a portage, from one river to the next.
When arriving to Molly's brothel he asks her for every cent she has because he now has a plan to be able to reach the Pongo in Ucayali without having to face the treacherous rapids. She gives him all she has and he purchases a cheap steamboat from Don Aquilino but only if he agrees to take a man named Cholo a mechanic to go along on his journey. After purchasing the steamboat Fitcarraldo and Molly step aboard and check it out and Fitzcarraldo hires a crew to have them rebuild the ship as Fitzcarraldo starts hiring several men for his voyage. He hires a dutch man named Paul Resenbrink who wants to help run his ship as a captain even though he hasn't sailed in a long time because of his failing eyesight; but knows all the tricks of the jungle saying, "the jungle plays tricks on your senses. It's full of lies, demons, illusions. I have learned to tell the difference between reality and hallucinations." He also hires a drunkard named Huerequeque who says he is the best cook and gunman in the Amazon.
Fitzcarraldo tells Molly that it would be better for her if she did not come along on the trip and to stay at the brothel and be with her girls. She understands even though is slightly disappointed but he makes her smile as he gives her a gift that is a painting of the two of them. After the steamboat is finally completed he shows it to Molly as she is flattered when she sees he named the boat after her because she did help him purchase it.
When Fitzcarraldo, Paul and Huerequeque and the rest of the crew start to sail off, Don Aquilino is shocked to notice that they are not heading towards the Pongo but heading in the direction of the Pachitea river. Cholo and the rest of the crew realize this as well and Cholo walks up from below the boat deck and asks the captain Paul why they are going upstream and not towards the Pongo.
Paul tells him, "we're going up the river. That's the idea. And, from now on, you only leave the engine room if I say so." During their voyage down the river Fitzcarraldo stops the boat as they arrive to his unfinished railroad project and Fitzcarraldo meets a few of his former employees as they greet him hello. His workers ask him when he will resume construction of the railroad and Fitzcarraldo tells them, "the thing is...we've come here on a different project. Our whole financial situation will change overnight, if it works. What I'm trying to say is...we need the tracks for another purpose." He then has several men start removing the tracks from underneath the railroad and orders his men to take more out in the forest. After grabbing enough tracks they set out again on sail and Fitzcarraldo wonders if they have passed Pachitea yet.
The captain Paul knows that they are just reaching it because of his senses and by the taste of the river. Heurequeque is down below the ship trying to seduce several of the women workers. Suddenly a fight breaks out down below the ship because several of the men are angry because of the course Fitzcarraldo is taking them; knowing it is dangerous. Fitzcarraldo confronts them and says, "I told you in Iquitos I needed men, not cowards who shit in their pants. So...whoever wants to leave, step forward." They make it near Saramiriza and are welcomed by several villagers to stay the night. That night several of the villagers warn Fitzcarraldo and Paul that several exhibitioner's had disappeared when going upstream Pachitea and came back with their bodies filled with stones and their heads gone from the Jivaro indians.
After a drunken fight between a few of Fitzcarraldo's men he strands them ashore before they take off again heading up-stream with several men loading their guns in fear of sudden indian attacks from the Jivaro's. They start hearing the beating sounds of the savage indians in the forest and the captain Paul asks Fitzcarraldo why his men are loading guns because that was a mistake when he went with another expedition. Paul says, "go down and tell them that, or there'll be a disaster." Suddenly Cholo shoots out a loud explosion and Paul says that what he is doing is crazy and Cholo says, "Just trying to have a little conversation with our invisible friends." An umbrella floats towards the boat and Fitzcarraldo believes it to be one of the missionaries that the Jivaro's killed and is a threat. The beating sounds of the indians get much louder the farther up the river they go and so Fitzcarraldo puts on a record of opera music of Enrico Caruso for the savages to listen to and the beating sounds suddenly stop.
The evening approaches with great silence and Fitzcarraldo curiously asks Huerequeque what Jivaro's believe in and eventually decides to take advantage of the myths of their gods. When Cholo wants to use violence against the Jivaro's Fitzcarraldo tells him, "but this God doesn't come with canons. He comes with the voice of Caruso." The next morning Fitcarraldo is told by Cholo that his loyal crew tied up Paul and deserted the three of them and when Fitcarraldo asks Cholo why he didn't join them he tells him it's because he wants Fitzcarraldo to return the ship safely. Fitzcarraldo ignores Cholo's orders and tells him to continue running the engine as he again plays some Caruso music and the three of them continue on their journey farther up the river. While heading up the river the three of them suddenly notice all the Jivaro indians pull out in the open on their canoes and others cutting down trees to block their path to continue. Heurequeque surprisingly appears from inside the boat drunk as he walks out to confront the indians all intoxicated. The indians pull up in their canoes and touch the large boat impressed as Fitzcarraldo greets them politely as the Jivaro's all climb up aboard and walk upon the boat and seem to not want to harm the four of them.
During dinner all the Jivaro's watch Cholo, Huerequeque, Fitzcarraldo, and Paul eating as the natives start playing music and speaking to each other in their language. Fitzcarraldo asks Heurequeque what the natives are saying and Heurequeque says, "they're talking about our ship...the white vessel from which they expect the promised salvation. They say there's a curse weighing on the entire land. They know that we are not gods but the ship has really impressed them."
The next morning Fitzcarraldo reaches the spot where the two rivers connect over the mountain and he finds an open area where to use the ship to take it across the mountain and there's in an amazing helicopter shot of Fitcarraldo on a high platform pointing out the geographic points on how to set up his construction near the Ucayali of the Pongo river. Paul doesn't understand how he will now accomplish this with the crew now gone and Fitzcarraldo says, "just like the cow jumping over the moon."
Cholo understands Fitzcarraldo's manipulative plan of using the natives as his workers and that evening Fitzcarraldo goes into great detail to Paul on his plan that with the manpower of enlisted natives, they will help pull his three-story, 320-ton steamer over the muddy hillside across a portage, from one river to the next; because the Jivaro's believe the boat to be enchanting. Using the steamer, he will then collect rubber on the upper Ucayali and bring it down the Pachitea to market where they will all get rich for their discovery.
That next morning Fitzcarraldo has the Jivaro's start going to work for him with them not understanding his true intentions as they start to cut down trees on the mountain to make an open space to drag up the large steamboat. After cutting down enough trees Fitzcarraldo realizes how steep the mountain really is and so he decides to use dynamite to break away some of the steepness even though the sounds of the explosions could risk scaring the natives. In one enchanting scene, Fitzcarraldo gives the native leader a man-made block of ice and there's an amazing shot of the native leader holding up the ice for all his workers to see. Suddenly all his workers stop working and turn in complete silence and awe in the block of ice their leader is holding.
In several breathtaking and documentary like footage the indians design a complex system of pulleys to get enough power to pull the boat over the mountain. Unfortunately during their first attempt there is a devastating accident as one of the cables snap and the boat falls back and crushes and kills one of the natives. The natives mourn over the death of their comrade and the project goes on hiatus as the natives refuse to continue working. The next morning the Jivaro's all leave and Fitzcarraldo starts thinking his plan is now hopeless until the Jivaro's suddenly reappear the very next morning and start working on the project again without a clear explanation.
Huerequeque who at first seems to be useless to them because of always being drunk comes up with the idea of running the ships engine while pulling it up the mountain which will give the boat more pressure from the steam to make it easier to pull up. When they notice that his idea is working Fitzcarraldo starts to celebrate by excitingly playing Enrico Caruso opera music during the pulling of the boat. Yet the next few days the natives still give Huerequeque doubt that they can be trusted and he believes that they are planning an attack.
In a powerful scene Fitzcarraldo looks over in the middle of the night to find several natives watching him with their hands on the ledge of the boat. When the natives notice Fitzcarraldo eyes locking onto theirs they slowly remove their hands from the ledge either out of respect or fear.
The ship finally gets pulled over the mountain and safely reaches the Pongo river on the other side. That evening everyone celebrates the achievement and gets drunk including Fitzcarraldo and his crew. However, after the drunken celebration, the chief of the Jivaro's severs the rope securing the ship to the shore, sending it floating down the Pongo river and crashing through the treacherous rapids. Fitzcarraldo, Huerequeque and Paul wake up not realizing the situation until the boat is to far into the current to turn back.
The chief of the tribe and a few other Jivaro's chose to stay on the boat telling Heurequeque that they untied the boat believing the divine vessel was only dragged over the mountain so that it could drift through the rapids to soothe the evil spirits of the rapids. In a beautifully if dangerous scene of the film the boat crashes upon the powerful current as you see it rock back and forth smashing into large rocks; many times it almost completely tipping over. Fitzcarraldo and Paul try to control the ship the best they can but it seems to be no use.
In the climax of Fitzcarraldo the ship surprisingly manages to traverse the rapids without major damage, and Fitzcarraldo and the rest of his crew find themselves back in Iquitos with now nothing to show for it. Don Aquilino celebrates their safe return and is shocked that they made it through the Pongo das Mortes with the steamship unharmed. Fitzcarraldo sells the ship back to Don Aquilino, but first sends the captain Paul on one last voyage. Even though the journey was a failure Paul returns with the entire cast of the opera house, including Enrico Caruso to congratulate Fitzcarraldo's brave and successful return. The entire city including Molly come to the shore as Fitzcarraldo, standing atop the ship with a cigar in his mouth proudly displays the cast.
NEW GERMAN CINEMA
The legendary director Werner Herzog was one of the major director's who contributed in the New German Cinema movement which lasted throughout the late 1960's to the 1980's. This movement was a sudden emergence of new generation German director's who produced a number of small low budget avantgarde films that caught the attention of art house audiences and enabled these directors into better financed productions which were even backed by the US studios. Such directors involved in the New German Cinema movement besides Werner Herzog were Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, VolkerSchlondorff, and Wim Wenders; as these young set of filmmakers sparked a renaissance in German cinema and their success encouraged other German filmmakers to make such quality stories. The New German Cinema was influenced by other earlier film movements like the French New Wave, British Kitchen Sink realism, and Italian Neorealism with references to the well-established genres of The Hollywood cinema. These films mostly contained low budget stories that represented contemporary German life as several of these filmmakers were specifically concerned with asking questions about national identity, German history, and the gritty and bleak experiences of modern struggles.
As a reaction to the artistic and economic stagnation of German cinema, these group of young German film-makers issued the Oberhausen Manifesto on 28 February 1962, which was a group that provocatively and confidently declared that "The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new cinema". The Oberhausen Manifesto was a rejection of the existing German film industry and their determination to build a new industry founded on artistic excellence rather than commercial dictates; most famously with Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul and Wim Wender's Wings of Desire.
The story of Fitzcarraldo was inspired by the real life Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald; in the 1890s. Fitzcarrald did bring a steamship across an isthmus from one river into another, but it weighed only 30 tons (rather than over 300), and was carried over in pieces to be reassembled at its destination. In his autobiographical film Portrait Werner Herzog, Werner Herzog has stated that the film's spectacular production was partly inspired by the engineering feats of ancient standing stones. The film production was an incredible ordeal, and famously involved moving a 320-ton steamship over a hill without the use of special effects. Herzog believed that no one had ever performed a similar feat in history, and likely never will again, calling himself "Conquistador of the Useless" Three similar-looking ships were bought for the production and used in different scenes and locations, including scenes that were shot aboard the ship while it crashed through rapids, injuring three of the six people involved in the filming.
Casting of the film was also quite difficult. Jason Robards was originally cast in the title role, but he became ill with dysentery during early filming and, after leaving for treatment, was forbidden by his doctors to return. Herzog then considered casting Jack Nicholson, and even playing Fitzcarraldo himself, before the love-hate actor Klaus Kinski accepted the role; the actor who played the evil tyrannical man in Herzog's earlier masterpiece Aguirre: the Wrath of God. By that point, forty percent of shooting with Robards was complete, and for continuity Herzog was forced to begin a total reshoot with Kinski. Mick Jagger was originally cast as Fitzcarraldo's assistant Wilbur, but due to the delays his shooting schedule expired and he departed to tour with the Rolling Stones. Herzog dropped Jagger's character from the script altogether and reshot the film from the beginning. Blank's footage in the documentary contains some of the only surviving footage of Robards and Jagger in Fitzcarraldo and many scenes documenting the ship's journey over the mountain.
Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski had one of the greatest and most unusual actor director relationships in cinema history. Klaus Kinski himself was a major source of tension on the set, as he fought virulently with Herzog and other members of the crew; a scene from the documentary My Best Fiend depicts Kinski raging at production manager Walter Saxer over trivial matters, such as the quality of the food. Herzog notes that the native extras, contrary to Kinski's feeling of closeness to them, were greatly upset by his shows of anger. In My Best Fiend, Herzog says that one of the native chiefs offered, in all seriousness, to murder Kinski for him, but that he declined because he needed Kinski to complete filming. In one scene, when the crew is eating dinner while surrounded by the natives, the clamor the chief incites over Fitzcarraldo was, according to Herzog, his exploiting their hate of Kinski.
Les Blank's 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams, goes into great detail on the many hardships of the production. One of the many beginning problems of the production was a border war between Peru and Ecuador which prevented Herzog from using the location he originally wanted to shoot the film in. "I don't want to live in a world without lions, and without people who are lions," Herzog states in Burden of Dreams. While filming Fitzcarraldo things were looking even worse for Herzog especially when he tried to get more time and backing from investors. The investors had heard that Herzog was finding it impossible to get the ship up and over the mountain, and asked if it would probably be smarter to take his losses and quit. Herzog replied by saying, "How can you ask this question? If I abandon this project, I will be a man without dreams, and I don't want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project."
The documentary of Burden of Dreams and even the commentary on the DVD is greatly fascinating. You learn about all the dangerous struggles that Herzog had to deal with during the making of the film including the steamboat slipping back down the hill, a crew member being bitten by a deadly snake but saving his life by cutting off his foot with a chainsaw, and even having Herzog's Brazilian engineer resigning and walking away from the film after telling Herzog there was a 70 percent chance that the cables would snap and dozens of lives could be lost trying to get the ship over the mountain. To how Herzog filmed the dangerous sequence of pulling the boat over the mountain without causing injury to any of the actors is extraordinary, as the sequence itself gives off a quasi-documentary like feeling as we watch hundreds of Indians design a complex system of pulleys which help sustain enough power for them to all pull the boat over the mountain. Watching these extraordinary images up on the screen knowing what your watching is the real thing is absolutely breathtaking, and is something no CGI or any form of special effects could ever surpass.We take for granted today how simple effects can be easily created and manipulated within the safety of a blue-screen. And yet you can't reproduce the same electrifying feeling of thrills and danger with the CGI films of today compared to the grunt and grueling risks that it took for a film like Fitzcarraldo to be made, where Herzog worked in real locations, working in extreme weather conditions and climates.
Like Stanley Kubrick, Werner Herzog has been known to be one of the most visionary and creative directors who took big risks in his projects to make the films he envisioned. One of his masterpieces was a film titled Stroszek, which was about a man released from prison and with a friend and prostitute leave Germany and come to America. The lead in the film was an unknown who was just released from an institution in which Herzog found him on the streets and when seeing him Herzog knew he would be perfect for the role. He used him again for the film The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, which was based upon the true and mysterious story of Kaspar Hauser, a young man who suddenly appeared in Nuremberg in 1828, barely able to speak or walk. Herzog also remade the F.W. Murnau silent expressionistic horror classic Nosferatu in which the film was a personal favorite of Herzog’s, and he even filmed it using the same locations as Murnau had. Then there is Aguirre: The Wrath of God which is considered Herzog's masterpiece and one of the greatest films in the world. This film also stars Klaus Kinski as a ruthless and insane leader named Aguirre during the 16th century leading a Spanish expedition in search of the golds of El Dorado. Aguirre is one of the greatest films to explore the dark depths of the human soul and exposes the themes of greed and madness. In an age where special effects are now simple to accomplish with the lazy use of CGI and the rise of 3D effects; Fitzcarraldo is a refreshing film that seems even more courageous and moving as it was when released in 1982. That an artist would go to these amazing and dangerous lengths to achieve these powerful and astounding visuals for the audience is nothing short of breathtaking. It was a great chance of luck that Robards dropped out of the picture because Klaus Kinski was perfect for the role of Fitzcarraldo. Even though the character of Fitzcarraldo is slightly mad this is one of the few roles where Kinski isn't playing a ruthless or violent individual; and the tender scenes of Kinski and the beautiful aging Claudia Cardinale are really quite touching. In one of the best scenes of the film near the end of the story, Fitzcarraldo tells such a profound and simple story to Don Aquilino saying, "at the time when North America was hardly explored...one of those early French trappers went westward from Montreal...and he was the first white man to set eyes on Niagara Falls. When he returned, he told of waterfalls that were more vast and immense...than people had ever dreamed of. But no one believed him. They thought he was a madman or a liar. They asked him, 'what's your proof?' And he answered, 'my proof is...that I have seen them." After his story, Fitzcarraldo looks at Don Aquilino and says, "sorry. I don't really know what that's got to do with me." And yet I believe that speech he gave has a lot more to do with Herzog and how his investors looked at him when he went on these mad obsessions of creating these 'impossible pictures.' And still even after being able to accomplish these amazing achievements; it seemed to never truly satisfy Herzog. He once says in an interview, "I am running out of fantasy. I don't know what else can happen now. Even if I get that boat over the mountain, nobody on this earth will convince me to be happy about that...not until the end of my days."