Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Werner Herzog | 2hr 38min

There is a time and place to blast loud music at large crowds, but clearly Irish opera enthusiast Fitzcarraldo never got the message. It is simply preposterous that anyone could possibly hear Enrico Caruso’s tenor and not be profoundly moved, and so why shouldn’t his voice be wheeled in to interrupt a sophisticated party, or blasted down jungle rivers so the native people might know what they are missing? With his white suit, wild mop of blonde hair, and wide-eyed expression etching a permanent madness across his face, Klaus Kinski looks like some absurd cross between an entrepreneur, scientist, and artist in Fitzcarraldo. Especially with the giant gramophone he lugs around with him, he would look like an outsider in any Western civilisation, let alone in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. There is a huge incongruity between reality and his ambitions of building an opera house in this secluded location, and it only takes a single look at his bizarre appearance to recognise how out-of-touch he is with the unforgiving brutality of the natural world. As Werner Herzog announces in his opening text, the native people call this place “the land where God did not finish creation”. Such lofty dreams of nurturing refined human culture here are not just naïve, but threaten the very foundations of his own conceited, fragile mortality.

One of the most absorbing characters of 80s cinema, carrying us along in his delusions.
“The land where God did not finish creation.” Overgrown canopies and misty shrouds weaving through the branches. Herzog shoots nature’s terror like few others.

Perhaps there is a part of Fitzcarraldo that believes the mythology of the local tribe he enlists in his endeavour, who prophesise a “white god in a divine vessel” bringing holy salvation. In staging him atop mountains, trees, and belltowers looking down upon Peruvian towns and jungles, Herzog certainly at least teases this notion, letting his entitlement burst forth in fits of desperate rage. Taking advantage of the natives’ beliefs is reprehensible enough on its own, but in deluding himself into thinking he could ever contend with and subsequently perfect God’s incomplete creation, he is positively foolish as well, believing that his vision of modern commercialisation is truly transcendent.

But of course, this dream of bringing the opera to the jungle is a long process that requires multiple steps. To get the money he needs to build the theatre, he must first enter the booming Peruvian rubber industry. To get there, he needs land, though with the only unclaimed parcel being cut off from major ports by a long stretch of rapids, he is driven to take alternative, unorthodox methods. Since his acreage is also located over a steep hill a few hundred metres from another, safer river, it stands to reason in his mind that he must haul his large, cumbersome steamship up its precipitous incline, recklessly conquering nature through sheer force of will so that he may exploit it for his own profit.

Herzog’s production design is wonderfully ornate in the first act of film before he disappears into the jungle, framing characters in early twentieth century colonial architecture.
Fitzcarraldo’s megalomania manifesting in high ridges and low angles.

With such an absurd endeavour fully consuming his protagonist’s mind, Herzog sets him up much like a tragic figure of ancient mythology, brought down by his own attempts to transcend humanity. As such, Fitzcarraldo becomes a fable of Herculean ambition, though one that is both distinctly modern in its sharp critique of colonial exploits, and slightly comical in how obviously this opera enthusiast is destined to fail from the start. Within its firm grounding in Greek narrative conventions, Fitzcarraldo also bears strong resemblance to Apocalypse Now and Herzog’s own previous effort, Aguirre, the Wrath of God. There is the additional similarity of each of these productions being plagued with a number of volatile conflicts and disasters that drove the casts and crews mad in the thick of unpredictable jungles, but even beyond this both Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola frame secluded waterways as passages through which humans embark on journeys to discovery and defeat, lightly paralleling the mythical River Styx.

The river is a symbol loaded with history and significance, but Herzog never shoots it cleanly. Debris and sediment are always present, peeking above the surface.

Even more than Coppola’s film though, there is a coarseness to the grain of Herzog’s cinematography in Fitzcarraldo, infusing the already intimidating scenery of thick, overgrown vegetation and brown, sedimented rapids with a hostile crudeness. Though he drifts his camera on boats past densely crowded trees backlit by magic hour sunsets, Herzog does not possess the spiritual reverence of Terrence Malick. Despite the tropical similarities in The Thin Red Line and Fitzcarraldo, there is a harsh distinction between the two, with the latter revelling in the chaotic, uncontrolled presence of overabundant life. Silhouetted congregations of shrubbery are turned into masses of negative space holding back the light of the sun, with branches bending under the strain of dense canopies that can no longer support their own weight. From higher vantage points where Fitzcarraldo stations himself like a god, heavy fog conceals the uncultivated earth like some unsettling, otherworldly shroud, cutting it off from the rest of humanity and obscuring the journeys of the few who are reckless enough to pass through it.

A massive achievement in natural lighting for Herzog, using vibrant, orange sunsets to silhouette his environments.
An unforgiving, inhospitable environment, crowding out Herzog’s shot and oppressing upon his characters in the background.

And in the middle of it all, Fitzcarraldo’s steamship glides innocently down the weedy river, its bow pointing ever-so-slightly upwards as if optimistically anticipating its destination. The noise of its endless, rhythmic chugging set against bird whistles and rushing water even sounds like chanting, mechanically pushing itself forwards despite the odds. The first time Fitzcarraldo and his lover, Molly, board it back at port, their excitement far exceeds its actual visage as an old, rusty vessel, missing floorboards and covered in moss. How this thing will ever make it up a mountain is beyond us, and yet in spite of his folly and overbearing tendencies, Herzog does not treat him with total disdain. In carrying out a virtually identical mission in filming this story, there is a dark irony present, with both men bending nature to their will and submitting to the intoxicating power of their own self-belief.

Depth of field in Herzog’s staging, telling entire stories and relationships through just the visuals.

Still, Herzog does not hold back from menacing surrealism that puts both him and Fitzcarraldo in their places as meagre humans challenging the merciless gods of nature. There is something unnerving about a black umbrella floating down a river in the wilderness, consumed by the water it is designed to keep out, but it is most of all the image of the ship finally ascending the colossal mountain where Herzog manifests the film’s most potent visual metaphor. While the mise-en-scene here is initially crowded out by thick branches and vines imposing upon Fitzcarraldo and the newly recruited Indigenous people, all of this is eventually cleared from view to make way for an enormous construction site, where Herzog employs hundreds of extras blocked all through his frame. In his staging around this set piece, he maintains a keen sense of his environment’s daunting topography, and with it, the manmade wooden beast carving its way through the very materials humans have fashioned it out of. Like the boat perched up a tree in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, there is an absurdity baked deep into this symbolism, whereby the ship becomes a hulking monument to modernity, trying to assert its strained dominion over creation. And of course, Fitzcarraldo stands there amid it all with his gramophone, playing Caruso as if summoning his opera house into existence.

Steam puffing, ropes straining, and the steamship crawls along at a snail’s pace, determined to make it over this muddy hill.

Fitzcarraldo’s challenges and exploitation of nature may be perversions of God’s creation, and yet his downfall is only set in motion at the point that his hubris completely clouds his own compassion. When a local man is killed during a successful test of the mechanical pulley system, it does little to dampen his celebrations, even while pained gasps can be heard in the background. The revenge of the native people he has so callously taken for granted unfolds under the bright, pale face of the full moon, shining down upon them like the white god of their legend, as they let the steamship drift away down the river into rapids.

A sly cutaway to the full moon as nature wreaks its revenge on Fitzcarraldo – perhaps even the white god of legend whose identity he has assumed.

This is not a man who can be kept down for long though. Even with his ambitions shattered, Fitzcarraldo’s dream lives on as Caruso arrives with a full cast and orchestra, summoned by the ship’s captain to deliver the first production in the Peruvian city of Iquitos. Perhaps the piece of Herzog that sympathised with the rubber baron couldn’t bear to see him completely beaten down and tortured. Nature need not be conquered to fulfil such grand aspirations, he posits, and in this way Fitzcarraldo becomes more than simply a cautionary tale. It is just as much a tribute to those who do strive for greatness, tempering their wild desires with a reminder of where exactly the lines between humanity, God, and nature are drawn.

The opera arrives in the Amazon without circumventing nature – a bizarre yet satisfying sight to behold.

Fitzcarraldo is currently streaming on SBS On Demand.

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