Fitzcarraldo (1982)

image from fitzcarraldo steamship jungle

Film review by Jason Day of Fitzcarraldo, the Werner Herzog film starring Klaus Kinski.





Irish adventurer Fitzgerald (Kinski) has one dream – to bring grand opera, in the form of famous tenor Mario Caruso and legendary theatre actress Sarah Bernhardt, to the natives of South America. Bankrolled by his lover Molly (Cardinale), he buys a huge steam ship and a plot of inhospitable jungle and attempts to fulfil his vision.

Review, by Jason DayFitzcarraldo poster final

Director Herzog and his most frequent actor Kinski had a notoriously tempestuous working relationship, Herzog even going so far as to threaten to kill the actor during a more heated moment on set, but their collaborations certainly produced some of the most fevered, intense dramas of the New German cinema of the 70’s and 80’s. This film is infused with a sweaty, frenzied energy, as if part of its DNA was fused with the celluloid.

Herzog returns to the jungles of Peru that provided the awesome backdrop to Aguirre, Wrath of God, the film that launched his international career a decade earlier. There are similarities in the plotting, but here Herzog is thinking on a massive, DeMille on acid scale. A mad European man has a crazed dream about establishing a unique colony in a remote area of rainforest that involves the lifting of a heavy object across mountainous terrain. Here, a huge canon is substituted for a 320 tonne steamship that was (in a sequence that took years to complete and has now passed into cinematic legend) arduously hauled up a near 90 degree incline. There is no more eerie, fucked vision in all of world cinema than that of the steamer perched halfway up a hull, wreathed in primordial mist.

There are similarities, but the film is also full of gross contrasts: the poverty of the Indians who clamour for Fitzgerald’s ice amidst the gluttony and card playing of the nouveau-riche, the rotting shcaks outside the palatial houses, the blazing white virginal dresses of Molly’s girls who are training to become whores, the lavish opera house seen at the beginning of the film and Fitzgerald’s prefabricated set ferried up river in bits and bobs.

Herzog’s epic vision even secured the services of two big film stars for his leading roles, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale. But, with 40% of the film compelte, Robards was struck with dysentery and was forbidden by doctors to return, leaving Herzog to reshoot his scenes but with Kinski taking over. Despite the on-set discord between them (the natives in the film, amazed at Kinski’s tirades against a passive Herzog, offered to kill the actor. Herzog politely refused), they still managed to create a fitfully genius classic. Herzog reflects this further by having Fitzgerald hire a Captain who has poor eyesight and an alcoholic cook who is trigger-happy with a gun.

Kinski’s yellow hair and paint white teeth make him look rather similar to Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) but his psychotic delirium is no cartoon and elevates the film to fittingly operatic madness.

Shame about the dreadful dubbing quality though; as maddening as the tone of the film itself.

Cast & credits

Director: Werner Herzog.

Producers: Werner Herzog, Willi Segler, Lucki Stipetic.
Writer: Werner Herzog.
Camera: Thomas Mauch.
Music: Popol Vuh.
Sets: Ulrich Bergfelder, Henning von Gierke.

Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, Jose Lewgoy, Miguel Angel Fuentes, Paul Hittscher, Huerequeue Enrique Bohorquez.


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