Made by Werner Herzog, this German film (dubbed) beautifully evokes the area of the upper Amazon in lush color and authentic detail. It begins with nighttime scenes of the jewel-box opera house in Manaus, Brazil. Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale are making the 900-mile trip down the Amazon in a small boat from Iquitos (in Peru) to Manaus. They have come to see Caruso in a lavish production. Fitzcarraldo (Kinski) is a failed entrepreneur who feels put down by the Rubber Barons of the turn of the century. His great dream is to build an opera house at Iquitos, and to book Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt. Returning to Iquitos, he conceives a plan for financing his dream by opening an inaccessible area of the rainforest to exploit its rubber trees. He buys a steamboat and proposes to take it to a place where two river tributaries run close to one another. There he will make a portage, dragging the steamboat over a hill and setting it down in the parallel waterway. The project is financed by profits from Cardinali’s highly successful brothel. She is called Molly.
The crew on the boat is restive and fearful of the unknown. From the ship, they hear the sounds of tribes in the forest they desert by rowboat. Kinski mounts his record player on the pilot house and plays Caruso to the Indians. Suddenly they appear in large numbers guiding canoes behind the ship. When they come onboard, there is a wordless and dangerous meeting of cultures. The whites call the Indians “bare-asses.” They put ashore and prepare to make their overland passage. The Indians are persuaded to help drag the boat to the next river. It is a massive engineering project, and their map seems to be incorrect. A man is killed when the boat backslides and the Indians disappear into the forest. But they return. The ship, called Molly-Aida, is pulled up the mountain on runners, using winches. It goes over the rise and descends into the other river. There is a rite of celebration that evening. While Kinski is sleeping off his drunk, the natives cut the mooring ropes and the boat drifts through treacherous rapids.
It survives but the dream is lost. They return to Iquitos in defeat. The story drifts here. The man who sold him the boat buys it back and Fitzcarraldo uses the money to welcome a touring opera company to Iquitos. The film ends with them singing Bellini’s The Puritans from the boat on the river. For the purposes of this website, Fitzcarraldo would rank among my Top Ten. It is a parable on what Europeans call “the civilizing process.” See Burden of Dreams (below). Aguirre: The Wrath of God, also set on the Amazon, was released ten years earlier in 1972.
Burden of Dreams (1982)
This documentary on the filming of Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog is set primarily in the area of Iquitos. It gives a brief account of the early shoot with Jason Robards and Mick Jagger in the central roles. When Robards is taken ill, he is flown home for treatment and cannot return. Jagger has to quit the film to fulfill other commitments. Herzog is able to secure new funding and returns to the jungle with his new star, Klaus Kinski. This film will help cement the legend of Herzog as a filmmaker whose works are often as much true life adventures as they are fictional creations. The challenges and frustrations faced by the director and his crew, culminating in the almost impossible task of getting the boat over the mountain, are the driving energies of the film. Attention is paid to the plight of the Peruvian Indians who are recruited in large numbers to work in the film and there are fears that the Indians will turn violent. Herzog is pessimistic about their future, but a print legend at the end offers some hope. It says the native people have been granted title to their land.
There is not the same level of histrionics between the director and his star as those seen in My Best Fiend (1999). In the supplements to the DVD, Herzog, looking back in 2005, says that the makers of the documentary agreed that it was not necessary to the story to include Kinski’s tantrums. This documentary film, which Herzog says is more than a “Making of Fitzcarraldo,” bears a striking resemblance to Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991). This is a documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now, filmed by Mrs. Francis Ford Coppola. Though Herzog seems more outwardly calm and collected than Coppola, his crisis is just as deep and his despair is comparable.
My Best Fiend (1999) – Herzog Documentary
This is a cinematic notebook by Werner Herzog on his long association with the mad Klaus Kinski. It opens with Kinski raving on the stage of a large hall that he is Jesus and returning the taunts of his audience with open hostility. At an affluent apartment in Munich, Herzog visits scenes of his poor adolescence as an immigrant from Bavaria. By a strange coincidence, his fractured family briefly lived in this apartment with the unstable Kinski. The scene shifts to Herzog sitting on a train moving along the banks of the Urubamba River in Peru. He reminisces about the extreme stresses of making the films Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and later, Fitzcarraldo (1982), both with Kinski. Next he moves to a Czech town where the film Woyzeck (1978) was made. He speaks at some length with the actress who shared the screen with Kinski in that film.
There is a flashback to a raving argument between the actor and director in the jungles of Peru. Herzog sits calmly and explains how the egomaniacal rages of Kinski negatively affected the Indian extras. There are scenes of a reunion between actor and director at the Teluride Film Festival and shots from Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). Herzog walks through a gallery of photos remembering Kinski. There is a clip from a film shot in Africa and Brazil, called Cobra Verde (1988). Returning to memories of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog sits for a conversation with the still lovely Claudia Cardinale. The constant theme of all these reminiscences is of Kinski as a force of nature, vile in his madness and brilliant in his professionalism. Herzog remembers learning of the actor’s death at his home near San Francisco in 1991. There is a final sequence of Kinski in the jungle playing with a butterfly.