Thanks to the world of Comedy Bang Bang (and my comedy crush Paul F. Tompkins) I find it hard to take Werner Herzog too seriously. Prior to seeing Fitzcarraldo my only true exposure to a Herzog feature film was Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Both deal with obsession, both are set in South America and both feature Klaus Kinski as… interesting characters.
Now the relationship between Herzog and Kinski was interesting. Actually that’s an understatement: it was fucked up. It got so bad on set that the chief of the native tribe that Herzog hired as extras actually offered to have Kinski killed. And yet, without Kinski’s amazing portrayal as the opera-obsessed failed railway magnate Fitzcarraldo this film would not be as nuanced and engrossing as it was. In fact his behaviour probably helped bring a lot of the tension to the scenes where otherwise it would have felt fake.
Fitzcarraldo is famous for one particular thing: the characters decide to pull a 300 ton steamboat up and over a hill/mountain. The ridiculous thing? They actually did it for the film. However, this part of the film was actually a lot smaller than I expected. For a two hour twenty minute film there was about 90 minutes of build up before this idea is even explicitly stated by Kinski’s character.
The actual act itself doesn’t take long in film minutes, but the whole sequence is arduous and gorgeously shot (in fact the whole film is beautifully shot; I can see why Herzog would want to return to the Amazon for another film). Trees are felled, cliffs are blown up, people are crushed – it’s actually gruelling.
As experiences go the sheer over the topness of Fitzcarraldo is very much operatic, which is why Kinski’s love of opera really works as a framing device. Apart from a criminally underused Claudia Cardinale there is a lot in this film to keep you engrossed for 150 minutes. I kinda wish there was a jaguar mauling though… and I may be alone with that thought.