Fitzcorraldo (Day 29)
My Opinion: 6.9 || A strong creative vision and captivatingly deranged performance places this in the magnificent failure category. It’s a great portrait of ruthless, megalomaniac idealism and of what happens when we encounter alien people and values. If only the plot really added up.
DIRECTOR: Werner Herzog
LANGUAGE: German | COUNTRY: Germany (Peru)
PROFILE: Historical Drama | 158 minutes | IMDb (8.0)
SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of Netflix): Klaus Kinski’s manic intensity lends itself perfectly to the role of obsessive genius Fitzcorraldo, a rubber baron intent on building an opera house deep within the Peruvian jungle, in this film from Werner Herzog. Capturing both the enormity of the jungle and the human spirit, the film finds cast and crew hauling a steamship over a mountain to achieve their mad goal.
Strengths: “Manic intensity” is a good description of what Kinski delivers here. Substitute any other actor, and it would have been a very different and less memorable movie. The unique brand of crazy that he brings to the role is wonderful to watch. (And I gather that he wasn’t very good at turning off the crazy.)
Very important to stress, though, that this is not just scenery-chewing dynamism; there are plenty of actors who can flail and shout their way through a role. Kinski’s performance is much more supple than that, and some of the best moments are the ones where he displays a kind of innocent, guileless delight, like when feeding ice to children or playing his phonograph. Fitzgerald’s devotion to opera contains an element of the insane but also an element of the sublime. And the same is true of his grandiose — brilliantly insane or insanely brilliant? — vision for mastering the jungle. Kinski nails the balance perfectly. It’s a one-of-a-kind role and performance.
Odd (But Not Really) Comparison: Interesting to think about Fitzcorraldo in relation to Close Up. The films have very different tones, and the approaches to filmmaking don’t appear similar. But in both movies you have characters whose souls are stirred by art — and whose dedication to art drives them to ext remes. Both are misfits confronting failure and desperate for respect. Although neither man is actually an artist, their dedication to art leads them into social transgressions. What we see in both films is the dignity and inadvertent artistry of their failures.
Weaknesses: It’s fine for Fitzgerald’s plan to be insanely grandiose, but it should make more sense than it does. The core of the movie is devoted to moving a steamship over a mountain, and it makes for good set pieces (and some fairly obvious metaphor), but it’s hard to feel very invested in the larger undertaking. The benefits of getting the ship over the mountain are obscure and too distant narratively from his grand obsession with bringing an opera house to the jungle.
The disastrous turn at the climax is a little farfetched and lacks power. And the surprisingly upbeat conclusion is nice in its way but doesn’t flow naturally from everything that precedes it.
Characters/Performances: I’ve covered Kinski’s amazing performance above. Unfortunately, nothing else in the film comes close to it. Many of the other characters are stereotypical, and too many performances have an exaggerated quality. Claudia Cardinale as Molly is an exception, though. Her loving, salacious devotion to Fitzgerald is delightfully unusual, and she’s gorgeous. (In fairness, I have a permanent affection for her and everyone else in Once Upon a Time in the West — high on my list of the greatest movies ever made.)
Best Moment: The opening is great, with wild-eyed, crazy-haired Fitzgerald arriving with Molly after paddling for hundreds of miles to see Enrico Caruso. It’s a perfect set-up scene, establishing the essence of his character (and his relationship with Molly) in a few deft strokes. Credit also to the small, quiet night-time scene in which the Indians one by one pull their hands from the side of the boat, receding into darkness.
Final Observation: There’s a highly praised documentary called Burden of Dreams that details the ordeals that Herzog endured to make the film. It seems similar to Hearts of Darkness (about the equally mad making of Apocalypse Now), and I’m hoping to watch it later in this run.
File Under: megalomania, jungle, obsession, art, colonialism, great performances