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.


Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Ingmar Bergman | 4 episodes (57min – 1hr 32min) or 3hr 8min (theatrical cut)

There is a whimsical horror threaded through Fanny and Alexander that only its ten-year-old protagonist grapples with – at least to begin with. He gazes at his toy paper theatre illuminated by nine flickering candles, before wandering around an exquisitely cluttered apartment draped in red, green, and gold fabrics, framing him like a lost child in a world of endless possibilities. He calls out to his family’s maids, but no one replies. The clock chimes three, a set of cherubs rotate on a music box, and a half-nude marble statue in the corner slowly begins to dance. Then, a soft scraping noise emerges beneath the eerie melody, and we catch a glimpse of a scythe being dragged across the carpet. The grim reaper has arrived, but not for young Alexander. Though this magical realist prologue might be the most undiluted manifestation of his vivid imagination that we witness, the heavy presence of death underlies all 5 hours of this Gothic family drama set in 1900s Sweden, marking his childhood with both merciless damnation and divine salvation.

A fantastical prologue setting up Alexander, his imagination, and the huge, magnificent apartment of his grandmother, Helena. Drapes of green and gold hang over cased openings and windows, creating immaculate frames all through the interior space.

In the haunted Christmastime setting of Fanny and Alexander’s opening, an air of Dickensian fantasy settles over the extended Ekdahl family, revelling in the warm festivities of their annual traditions. Religious celebrations and commemorations form the basis of these gatherings, and often mark key narrative beats through funerals, weddings, and christenings. Accompanying these occasions are large meals spread across expansive dining tables, though none are so magnificent as the spread on Christmas Eve night which dominates the first act of the film.

Here, Ingmar Bergman delights in splendidly designed sets of vivid crimson hues, weaved all through the patterned wallpaper, long candlesticks, velvet curtains, and holiday decorations. With such a dominant primary colour commanding the mise-en-scène, there are abundant opportunities for his regular cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, to embellish it with small flourishes of emerald-green, popping out in festive wreaths, holly, and indoor plants that frequently hang in the foreground of his compositions, snugly crowding out the space.

Simply one of Bergman’s finest achievements in production design, dotting his rooms with candles and festive decor, and filling them out with red, green, and gold hues in stunning arrangements. These shots are cluttered but cosy, immersing us into 1900s Sweden.

Matching his rich use of colour is Bergman’s impeccable staging of his large ensemble, defining the status and identity of each character by their position within immaculately staged shots of family unity, habitually framed within those elegantly draped arches between rooms or around overflowing dining tables. The camera glides gracefully through crowded rooms, each one warmly illuminated by the yellow light of chandeliers and oil lamps. At times it simply soaks in the splendid décor and delectable meats, or it will otherwise latch onto family members as they make their way through the vast yet intimate apartment of their widowed matriarch, Helena.

Warmth and unity in Bergman’s blocking during the first act over Christmas Eve, bringing the entire extended Ekdahl family together within gorgeously composed frames.
A noticeable shift in the staging following the death of Oskar – reserved distance between each family member, each relegated to their own position and pose.

Within their local community, the Ekdahl family are known for owning the local theatre and staging annual nativity plays, and for as long as they all remain out in open living areas, we continue to witness those dramatic sensibilities emerge in scenes of poetry recitations and musical performances late into the night. It is when they retreat behind closed doors that these larger-than-life characters begin to reveal personal troubles – Alexander’s uncle, Adolf Gustav, keeps a joyful, cheeky attitude right up until he finds his ego slighted, and Carl Ekdahl possesses significant contempt towards his German wife.

Rich colours and compositions loudly coming through in the Ekdahl family theatre – you can see clearly where they get their flair for dramatics.

It is a lengthy setup which Bergman conducts here, insulating us in these family celebrations like a warm, protective barrier from the freezing snow that blankets the village outside. The touch of poignancy he brings to one conversation between a maid and Alexander’s cousin, Jenny, about Christmas being a difficult time for people with bad memories especially foreshadows the poor misfortune which is about to strike. These children may not understand that concept yet, but upon the death of Oskar, Alexander’s father, Bergman slowly sinks us into a despairing grief that dwarfs any of the issues which previously existed on the fringes of this family unit. He first collapses during a rehearsal of Hamlet, quite appropriately while playing the father’s ghost in the scene in which he visits his son. The narrative that follows is heavily Shakespearean in both structure and characterisation, though in place of an evil uncle swooping in and taking the crown, here it is a bishop marrying Alexander’s mother, Emilie, and whisking her small family away to his cold, bare home.

Even outside the scope of family homes, Bergman finds a bright but chilly beauty in the frozen streets of Sweden.

As the second act commences, Fanny and Alexander becomes an act of catharsis for Bergman, who, in playing to these archetypes of corruption and innocence, reflects large portions of his own childhood. The fond memories of a flawed but welcoming family exist in stark contrast to the oppressive dynamic that pervades the bishop’s home, and caught between the two is the overly active imagination of a boy who struggles to differentiate between fantasy and reality. As such, there is also a distinctly fairy tale quality that takes hold of Fanny and Alexander, accompanying the introduction of the wicked stepfather with ghosts and demons who may very well be directly inspired by those religious tales which the children are raised on. Being deprived of a supportive father figure himself, Bergman carries great empathy for Alexander, understanding his immaturity as a natural stage in his own creative development.

Perhaps it is this lack of emotional inhibition which grants the young boy the means to deal with his grief, letting him lash out in ways which, while not entirely polite, are honest to his own thoughts and feelings. In one evocative scene after he and his sister, Fanny, hear their mother’s guttural cry erupt from somewhere in their grandmother’s apartment, they creep out of bed to peer through the crack of a door, where they see her wailing in private over her husband’s cold body. Unlike Alexander’s coping mechanisms that are freely expressed out into the world, the overwhelming feelings of adults must be repressed to those small, remote corners where no one else can see. This is a lesson that the bishop beats into him even harder, reframing the whimsical fabrications he uses to understand the world as sinister lies that will damn him to hell.

A thin frame caught in the crack of a door, as the children get out of bed to see their deceased father and their wailing mother pacing back and forth.
With a shift in location to the bishop’s house, the splendid drapes and decor of the Ekdahl home is replaced with austere, colourless walls and quiet, unwelcoming dinners. Not a trace of eye contact to be found in these family gatherings.

The move from Helena’s vibrant, festive home of expressionistic décor to the stark white halls of the bishop’s Spartan house lands with a quiet dread, and with it comes a shift in Bergman’s approach to blocking. Gone are the large family gathering of characters arranged in relaxed formations across plush couches and dining halls. These rooms are made of stone and wood, unembellished and projecting a cold hostility as the bishop exerts physical dominance over every communal space. His demand that Emilie and her children lose all their old possessions as if “newly born” is delivered with a faint chill, forcing them to conform to the image of sparse minimalism he prescribes to, though this attempt at rewriting their identities is only the start of a long line of abuses. Bergman goes on to capture the devastating isolation that is wreaked upon the young siblings with compositions that close them up inside bleak, angular frames, gazing out the windows of their depressing bedroom and, in one scene, crumpling Alexander on the grey, dusty floor of the attic beneath a fallen crucifix, as if slain by a domineering force of spiritual corruption.

Bergman shoots the bishop’s house like a prison with desolate compositions like these.
A fallen crucifix and the crumpled body of Alexander, banished to the attic for his disobedience.

Perhaps the single unifying stylistic device carried through all Bergman’s settings though is his staging of actors in still poses like subjects of a painting, particularly focusing on the thoughtful arrangements of their faces that reveal just as much as their expressions. As Oskar lays on his deathbed, his face turned to the side to face the camera, Emilie’s profile leans up against his cheek in pensive mourning, simultaneously revealing both the intimacy of their final days of marriage, and the tension that is pulling them apart. In contrast, a later shot at the bishop’s house which frames Fanny, Alexander, and Emilie lying on their sides in bed captures them all looking towards the camera, united in their melancholy. With each face slightly obscuring the one behind it, Emilie is set up at the back as the quiet protector of her children, shielding them from the bishop who stands alone and unfocused in the background.

As always, it is the way Bergman shoots arrangements of faces that uncovers the subtlest emotions. Not just the physical blocking, but the lighting and angles as well.

Jan Malmsjö brings a sadistic venom to this role, though he takes care to only reveal his villainy gradually. His first handling of Alexander’s lies is stern but relatively fair, keeping us at a distance from the bitter, angry man who lies beneath his cool veneer. It is initially hard to get a good read of him, but by the time we arrive at his next chastisement of Alexander, his malevolence is exceedingly clear. In response to the bishop’s degradation and punishment, the young boy grows more obstinate in his disobedience, and yet even he can only stand so many beatings before being forced into submission. Watching on, Fanny silently recoils from the bishop’s touch, and Emilie’s contempt for her husband grows. With all paths of escape cut off, they become a broken, trapped family, suffering in an austere hellhole.

Alexander facing the bishop’s wrath, isolated even from his own sister in this shot while the bishop sits back with his family.

Across these early adolescent years of torment, Alexander catches visions of his father’s ghost walking through hallways, bearing witness to the depression left behind in his wake. These transcendent experiences are not limited to his son though, as late in the film Oskar also appears to Helena, his bereaved mother, and simply sits with her as she delivers an eloquent soliloquy on the process of accepting her grief.

“Life, it’s all acting anyway. Some roles are nice, other not so nice. I played a mother. I played Juliet and Margareta. Then suddenly I played a widow or a grandmother. One role follows the other. The thing is not to shrink from them.”

Oskar’s ghost manifesting to both Alexander and Helena, always in his white suit and silently pacing the halls of the family home.

And yet, even as an actress with a deeper understanding of the human condition than her grandson, Alexander, the pain is no less present.

“My feelings came from deep in my body. Even though I could control them, they shattered reality, if you know what I mean. Reality has remained broken ever since… and oddly enough, it feels more real that way. So, I don’t bother to mend it.”

Bergman’s screenplay flows like poetry through these thoughtful contemplations of life-changing events, and yet as this epic drama comes to a close and releases Alexander from the bishop’s tight, suffocating grip, only four words are used to punctuate its ending with a lingering thread of trauma. Though the bishop and his family have perished in the blaze of an incidental fire that obliterated their home like a hellish condemnation, his ghost lives on in Alexander’s mind, cruelly pushing him to the ground and taunting him.

“You can’t escape me.”

Surreal visions emerging at moments when Alexander is particularly overcome with emotion. They range from being deeply wondrous as he listens to a story and is transported to a new location, to downright creepy as the bishop’s maid, Justina, lurches towards him with bleeding palms from stigmata.

The fantastical imagination of Bergman’s young protagonist is evidently as dangerous as it is enchanting, filtering the world through a lens that distorts every intense emotional experience into a memory that will never fade away. Though it manifests primarily as supernatural creatures and visions, it is also baked right into those dazzling bursts of colour that decorate his mise-en-scène, leaping out like nostalgic recollections of a youth that was only partially lived in the real world. By simply dwelling within this perspective, Fanny and Alexander becomes a deeply sentimental work, and through its profound dreams Bergman crafts a magnificent distillation of childhood wonder and terror.

A return to normalcy, though with a change in decor – the reds and greens of Christmas Eve are replaced with pastels to represent a christening, signifying a birth and renewal within the Ekdahl family.

Fanny and Alexander is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

Peter Greenaway | 1hr 48min

There is a murder mystery lingering beneath the Baroque façade of this late 17th century English country manor, though the question is less about who committed the killing, and more how one Mr Neville fits into it all. He is a young artist, commissioned by Mrs Herbert to sketch twelve landscapes of her estate for her absent husband, and in his creative pursuits he demands perfectionism. Each day he repeats in voiceovers the time and place of where he will conduct his work, and clears everyone from the gardens to guarantee clinical consistency. Still, small imperfections begin to slip in here and there. A ladder leading up to a window. A shirt slashed across its front. Gradually each one of these artistic renderings become more like incomplete pieces in a confounding puzzle, disturbing Mr Neville’s measured sensibilities within a plot he can’t possibly grasp.

There is a definite parallel between the painterly ideals of our stubborn protagonist and Peter Greenaway, whose artistic precision emerges in predominantly static tableaux, framing perfectly manicured gardens and meticulously arranged interiors with a similarly painterly attention to detail. Kubrickian seems like a fitting descriptor here, not just in representing the cold distance with which these characters are regarded, but also in our understanding of the film as a descendant of Barry Lyndon’s stylistic lineage.

These interiors are Sternbergian in the obstruction of actors through period decor, but the precision and coldness feels entirely Kubrickian.

Greenaway’s depiction of historical British aristocrats surrounded by extravagant period décor especially works to build up the theatrical artifice of their high society, as we observe in the film’s opening where they gather within candle-lit rooms and in symmetrical arrangements around elaborate displays of fruit to gossip among themselves. His artistic perspective is even more evident in his use of Mr Neville’s drafting board as a frame through which his camera observes the Herbert estate, crafting his own picturesque images much like the draughtsman himself.

A constant framing of these beautifully manicured gardens through Mr Neville’s drafting board, revealing Greenaway’s own painterly sensibilities.

But for all his mathematical precision, Greenaway is evidently more prepared to wrestle with the inconsistencies of his subject matter than Mr Neville. It isn’t just the strange clues being left around the garden, but often just beyond the view of other characters there lurks a naked man, always painted to resemble either a sculpture or otherwise blend in with his surroundings. Trying to decipher the logic behind this figure’s bizarre actions would be a waste of time, as this would be to submit to the flawed idealism that Mr Neville attempts to impose order upon his surroundings. The living sculpture is rather a human manifestation of chaos, discreet in its appearance, unpredictable in its movements, and impertinently disrespectful to everyone caught up in this high aristocratic culture.

The nude man making subtle appearances outside dinners and gatherings. His mere appearance is a disturbance in this mannered culture.

As beautiful as Mr Neville’s sketches are, they do not capture the truth of this mysterious man’s identity or his environment. One would also never realise from his drawings that the residents of this majestic mansion trade snarky barbs that undercut its image of civility, nor that it is housing a sordid affair between Mrs Herbert and the draughtsman himself. In graphic match cuts between his black-and-white drawings and the real landscapes, we see the beautiful colour drained from this setting, though it is clear that Greenaway is also working against Mr Neville’s inflexible artistic methodology. Michael Nyman’s jaunty Baroque score of harpsichords, saxophones, and bass guitars feels particularly in line with his brazen aesthetic, mixing traditional and contemporary instruments as part of a vaguely anachronistic chamber ensemble, which also fits superbly within the film’s mischievous irreverence. It is primarily through this playful aesthetic that the hollow power plays and puzzles of The Draughtsman’s Contract begin to reveal themselves, so that by the end of Greenaway’s obscure murder mystery we may even delight in its final bitter twist of the knife.

Greenaway cares fare more about aesthetic than plot, as it is through that which we begin to understand the dynamics of this quaint but nefarious aristocratic culture.

The Draughtsman’s Contract is not currently available to stream in Australia.