Some films are defined by a single scene or sequence:
‘Bullitt’ – the car chase.
‘The French Connection’ – the car/elevated train chase.
‘The Italian Job’ – bunch of Minis beetling about.
‘Apocalypse Now’ – the helicopter attack/Ride of the Valkyries.
Parenthetically: funny how all these films are defined, essentially, by modes of transport.
Mention ‘Fitzcarraldo’ to any serious film fan – or, more explicitly, just look at the poster – and you’re immediately in “ship gets dragged over mountain” territory.
Watching Herzog’s fourth collaboration with Kinski again recently, it struck me that, for audiences seeing the film for the first time (those, anyway, for whom the game hadn’t been given away by the poster), its central conceit must have been truly astounding. You see, it’s not till an hour and half in (‘Fitzcarraldo’ runs 157 minutes) that Kinski gleefully outlines his deliriously lunatic scheme to circumvent a dangerous set of rapids by dragging his rusting old wreck of a vessel a couple of miles overland at the point where two tributaries run closest to each other.
Up until this point, the film has been about something equally grandiose: the all-consuming obsession of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Fitzcarraldo is the name the natives give him) to bring opera to the jungle. The man engages in business ventures not for personal profit, but so that he can build an opera house in the outer reaches of nowhere and have Enrico Caruso open it.
A German-Irish ex-patriot, at sea amongst the rubber barons and dissipates who have achieved what all white men in far-flung corners of the globe manage to achieve (the raping of the land and the subjugation of the indigenous population), he struggles to make his fortune. His one ally, also his consort, is Molly (Claudia Cardinale), madame of a prosperous brothel. With unerring faith, she sinks her savings into his latest venture, the acquisition of a rust-tub boat and a claim on a chunk of land rife with rubber trees. The only reason Fitzcarraldo’s peers haven’t already exploited the territory is its inaccessibility.
Fitzcarraldo is a laughing stock, principally because of his last failed venture, the Trans-Andean Railway, a project that got no further forward than a station, a waiting room and a few dozen yards of track. Mentioned several times in dialogue, Herzog actually depicts this tremendous folly about an hour in, and it’s the first indication of the scope, madness and resilience of both Herzog’s film and its eccentric protagonist.
Of the films I mentioned at the start of this post, ‘Apocalypse Now’ has the closest parallels to ‘Fitzcarraldo’: jungle setting, troubled production, director lionised by the press as egomaniacal. Also, both are hugely visual and visionary. For want of a better word, epic.
And not just in terms of running time. It’s the sheer concept of what the film-makers went through in order to achieve their vision that leaves you reeling. With the anachronistic exception of a bulldozer that was used to level ground and, on occasion, give the ship a helping tug, everything that Herzog puts on screen was physically effected by his cast and crew.
It’s easy to be blasé about visual effects nowadays: CGI can pretty much give shape and form to anything. But ‘Fitzcarraldo’ was made over twenty-five years ago. No green-screen and digital imagery back then. What there was back then, and what most directors would have opted for, was model work. (Remember the Airfix-kit-in-a-swimming-pool special effects of costly flop ‘Raise the Titanic’?) Not Mr Herzog. He keeps it real. And thank God he does. Even after multiple viewings, ‘Fitzcarraldo’ continues to astound, inspire and delight me.
True, the spectacle, the visuals, the look of the film (a raised glass here to cinematographer Thomas Mauch) are amazing. But beyond that, and for all that Fitzcarraldo’s scheme ultimately fails, the most delightful aspect of the film is its exuberance. Compare Kinski’s character here to his portrayals of Aguirre (crazed, violent, egocentric), Dracula (vampire; ’nuff said) or Woyzeck (persecuted, paranoid, driven to violence). As Fitzcarraldo, he laughs, he smiles (whether he’s in Molly’s arms or being transported by a scratchy recording of Caruso), he embodies jubilation even though his plans come to naught … in short, he never stops dreaming.
Aside, perhaps, from ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film about failure that’s emerged as so gloriously life-affirming.