Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Herzog Watch: Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Watched:  07/02/2024
Format:  Peacock
Viewing:  First
Director:  Werner Herzog

Fitzcarraldo (1982) is not necessarily famous for being a great movie, although some certainly have considered it to be so.  Instead, it's mostly famous for being the most notoriously difficult movie to ever make, including having to start over well into production because the original star fell ill and they had to find a new star and then start over.  Also, they really did move a massively heavy metal boat over the top of a hill.

I'd been wanting to watch this movie for a while, then whilst writing up 8 1/2, I figured out Claudia Cardinale is in this movie, and that was, apparently the item that tipped me over.  

As a story, this movie will remind you of a few other things from the era.  Perhaps Mosquito Coast.  For me it was The Mission.  But it's the general idea that someone is going to go into the wild to go do something that seems foolhardy on paper, and, indeed, it turns out to be super hard.  And in the jungle.*

There's a poetry to the mad man with a vision disappearing into the jungle to try and achieve that crazy goal, witnessed by only a few from home, and surrounded by indigenous people.  And, because this is a post-1970/ pre-1990 movie, we're fine with showing them totally failing.  Because they challenged the world and the world pushed back.

Set in the early 20th century, our movie is about an Irishman in Peru, Fitzgerald (who goes by Fitzcarraldo) played by the very not-Irish Klaus Kinski.  Fitzcarraldo sees himself as a man of culture as he loves opera, and he wishes to bring that to the town he's watching grow.  We know he's delusional as he describes his small town as a growing city on par with the finest in Peru (it is not) - and he wants to bring opera to his town.  But to do that, he needs money.  

He stumbles upon a plan, which is financed by his friend and lover played by Claudia Cardinale, a local madame.  He's going to exploit a whole new part of the Amazon jungle for rubber - it's a section that even the biggest rubber concerns haven't hit yet as there are troublesome rapids on the river connecting that area to the port town.  

His plan, as you will have guessed, is to pull a boat over the hill separating the traversable parallel river and connect with the other river upstream of the rapids.  It's what we in the plan-evaluating business called a "hare-brained scheme" but, also "so crazy, it just might work".

The staff he brings on his boat is irksome, and the crew is initially threatened by locals, but the locals discover what he's up to (charmed by his playing of Caruso opera tracks) and assist him in his plan to move the boat.

Watching the film, it is absolutely an unbelievable spectacle by 2024 standards.  Herzog famously did go into the jungle, he did recruit locals to act in the film and work on the set.  And there's enough drama there to have spun off a whole two documentaries, The Burden of Dreams and My Best Fiend (neither of which I've yet seen).  But the results are there on film.  You can see a movie in which a 350+-ton boat is moved up a hill, bit by bit, with an army of extras.

Kinski as Fitzcarraldo is manic and absolutely believable as someone who thinks building a jungle opera house is a phenomenal idea.  His character isn't stupid - and Kinski manages to thread the needle of his character's obsessions and when he gets overclocked, and his awareness of the real danger he's in from time to time.  It's an ecstatic performance.

Anyway - at this point I'm mostly looking to watching Burden of Dreams to see how this thing was put together.

Do I rank it as highly as, say Roger Ebert, who placed this in his Great Movies list?  I'm going to sit with it a while.  It is certainly one that will stick with me, and I see myself thinking on it in the future.  We'll see.  For now, I'll say it was well worth the watch, and I would give it another spin.  And I think it has almost mythological components that make it worth seeing as a cultural touchpoint.

*It reminds me of the placard I saw that says "We do not do these things because they are easy, but because we thought they would be easy."

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