Directed by: Werner Herzog » Written by: Werner Herzog, 1982 » Region/Time: West Germany, 158 minutes

Starring: Klaus Kinski as Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald » Claudia Cardinale as Molly » José Lewgoy as Don Aquilino » Miguel Ángel Fuentes as Cholo » Paul Hittscher as Captain » Huerequeque Enrique Bohorquez as The Cook » Grande Otelo as Station Master » Peter Berling as Opera Manager » David Pérez Espinosa as Chief of Campa Indians » Ruy Polanah as Rubber Baron » Salvador Godínez as Old Missionary.

“I don’t want to live in a world without lions, and without people who are lions!” – Werner Herzog

In the movie Fitzcarraldo, a real 340 ton steam ship is moved through the rainforest of Iquitos, Peru over a mountain with a primitive winch and pulley system without the use of special effects. It is an awesome sight. The film tells the true, but highly exaggerated story of Brian Fitzgerald, an Irish would-be rubber baron who sees a way to bypass a fearsome set of rapids to deliver rubber from an untouched area of land to the main port. His motive? To provide himself with enough money to build an opulent opera house in the jungle and invite the famous Enrico Caruso to sing Verdi.

The film opens with Fitzgerald furiously rowing himself and his mistress Molly, played by Claudia Cardinale, down the Amazon to the opera. They are late and the motor has died. Once they arrive, it transpires that latecomers will not be admitted, although through sheer force of personality, Fitzgerald gets in. It is here that he hatches his great plan to build an opera in the jungle. It couldn’t be much harder than making ice in the jungle, which is how he is currently financing himself, along with Molly’s help, who runs the local bordello.

The rubber-rich land that Fitzcarraldo buys is located upstream of some very dangerous rapids that are not traversable by boat. However, Fitzcarraldo, so called because the indigenous Amazonian natives cannot pronounce his name, sees on a map that a much tamer rapid comes with a mile or two of the other tributary. He gets the brilliant idea to take his steamship up one tributary and then move it over the land to the otherwise inaccessible river. Through his extreme earnestness, he convinces the locals to help him pilot his steamship up the river and move it over the land. The real Fitzcarraldo was not as foolish as the fictional one (or, indeed, Werner Herzog), in that he planned to dismantle a much smaller 34 ton steamship and carry it across the isthmus.

Fitzcarraldo, however, stars Klaus Kinski as the eponymous hero and so his madness is completely understandable. If you have never seen Kinski in a movie, imagine a wild German with bugged-out eyes, a wild mop of blond hair and a penchant for unpredictable outbursts. One senses this is person who would be dangerous to know. The climactic scenes of Fitzcarraldo directing the Peruvian natives—incongruous in his panama hat and white suit amidst the rainforest, trying to inspire them with old Caruso records played on his Victrola—do not seem so out-of-character for Kinski, the actor. Indeed, Herzog has said that, during the making of the film, one of the native chiefs offered to murder Kinski for him. Herzog declined, because he needed to complete the filming.

It took over four years to film Fitzcarraldo, mostly because Herzog did it for real, filming 400 miles into the rainforest of Peru and pulling a real steamship across a rather intimidating mountain. Later scenes were also enacted without models, in which the steamship ends up getting loose from its moorings and travels down Pongo das Mortes (the Rapids of Death) anyway. Actors and crew were shooting onboard the ship while it crashed through rapids,and three of the six people were injured. Famously one of the most difficult film shoots ever—arrows were shot at crew from the forest, one crewmember chopped his own leg off with a chainsaw as he had just been bitten by a poisonous snake—much is shown in Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams. Like 2001 and Apocalypse Now, Fitzcarraldo is an epic movie above others in which the hubris to conceive of and struggle to make the movie pervades the actual viewing experience, and reflects the adventures of the actual characters.

During the production, his original location had to abandoned due to a border war between Peru and Ecuador. Four months were shot at the new location when the star, Jason Robards, contracted amoebiasis and left the production. Herzog fired him and co-star Mick Jagger (yes, that Mick Jagger) and hired Kinski. Herzog had previously used Klaus Kinski in the brilliant Aguirre, the Wrath of God (which was on and off this list so many times (but ultimately off)) and Nosferatu, a remake of the 1927 silent original. To quote Roger Ebert “Kinski was a better choice for the role than Robards, for the same reason a real boat was better than a model: Robards would have been playing a madman, but to see Kinski is to be convinced of his ruling angers and demons.”

In Burden of Dreams, while filming Fitzcarraldo, Herzog complains that “this land is vile and base! It’s a land which God, if he exists, has created in anger.” Fitzcarraldo is full of potent images that will sear themselves into your memory. Like Fitzcarraldo’s semi-fiction quest, it is a wonder it was ever attempted in the first place, let alone completed.

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