Wednesday 13 December 2017

1,001 Films: "Fitzcarraldo" (1982)

Fitzcarraldo has entered movie lore as the film for which Werner Herzog actually pushed a steamboat over a mountain in South America - and, as if that task weren't onerous enough, did so with the quasi-feral chaos of Klaus Kinski at the helm. It might, then, be taken as a companion piece to the pair's 1972 landmark Aguirre, Wrath of God - the kind of project from which it would take lesser mortals more than one decade to recover - only where that production played out like a living nightmare, a hallucinatory bad trip, this follow-up has always retained the air of a beautiful reverie. Kinski plays the entrepreneur of the title - a failed railroad boss turned bigshot in ice production, his name a local derivation of his actual surname Fitzgerald - who vows to bring culture to a small town on the banks of the Amazon by floating an opera house upriver and mooring it thereabouts. This is, naturally, easier promised than achieved: not only does this involve travelling over the aforementioned bump, but also venturing deep into native territory, with the boat's original crew deserting halfway through the voyage, scared of what might lie beyond a certain point. 

Herzog, clearly, never was: his film is as wired as Kinski himself, and as vivid as the actor's toothy grin and shock of blonde hair when caught playing Caruso to the trees. Here is one of the few epics with both a grand design and a sense of the myriad nuts and bolts involved in realising it; a movie that holds a crazy notion and some idea of how one might, if one were so determined, go about it. This director's documentarist tendencies keep kicking in: perhaps realising the film cannot physically go anywhere if certain aspects of production design aren't fulfilled, Herzog turns his camera to the collection of rubber from trees, the casting of propellers, the construction of ramps and pulleys. (No great film has ever shown us more of its working.) Shots of the boat as seen from the shore, and the jungle as seen from the boat, lull us into the belief this is a story more observed than constructed; it remains open to debate whether Les Blank's on-set doc Burden of Dreams supports or debunks the myth. At every stage, it remains an extraordinary (ad)venture - something like Apocalypse Now as remade by optimists - with a real and powerful sense of wonder. Herzog makes his interiors, such as the (mimed) operatics at the beginning, every bit as enchanting as the voyage into the jungle, and gives the key line to Fitzcarraldo's lover, a brothel keeper played by Claudia Cardinale: "It's only ever the dreamers who move mountains."

Fitzcarraldo is available on DVD through the BFI.

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