Ten years after Aguirre, The Wrath of God, director Werner Herzog and star Klaus Kinski returned to the Amazon, this time for the tale of an opera-obsessed entrepreneur in turn-of-the-century Peru.
Determined to build a performance space that would attract top European singers to his river outpost, Fitzcarraldo (Kinski) plans to raise the necessary funds by harvesting rubber in an isolated corner of the jungle made unreachable by a series of rapids. His solution? Portage a steamship up a steep hill from one tributary of the Amazon to another.
This effort―essentially recreated by Herzog in real life―is the heart of the film, and what understandably has made the production a legend (as well as the target of critics who question the safety and sanity of such filmmaking, especially when it comes to the use of indigenous extras). The portage section of the film is a massive undertaking of engineering and human labor and Herzog employs long shots and aerial footage to capture this sense of immensity. When the massive ship begins inching up the hill, you can’t help but share in Fitzcarraldo’s elation.
Yet the movie is also full of other arresting moments that capture both the bravery and the danger of Fitzcarraldo’s determination. Chugging down the river to the portage site, Fitzcarraldo and his crew hear ominous drums emanating from the thick forests on the river’s banks. He responds by taking a record player to the steamship’s roof and blasting Caruso back into the jungle. Later, after members of a local tribe have been working for Fitzcarraldo for awhile but have begin to question his judgment, there is an eerie scene in which they slowly withdraw from the circle of light being cast by his kerosene lamp, disappearing back into the darkness.
As for Kinski, he’s a different sort of deranged compared to the wild-eyed insanity of Aguirre. His Fitzcarraldo is almost a clownish figure, even pitiable in an early party scene in which his pitch to fellow businessmen about his opera house goes disastrously wrong (Claudia Cardinale is quite good as the brothel madam who is the only one who believes in him). There is an odd tension to his character, in that his colonialist/capitalist impulses are undeniably destructive, yet they’re ultimately in service of life-giving art. And the film’s finale, while recognizing Fitzcarraldo’s failure in one sense, also offers him vindication in that the opera, via other means, does come to town. If Fitzcarraldo is still a tragedy, it’s because everyone and everything―from Fitzcarraldo to his crew to the tribe to the jungle itself―must suffer for his art.