NetFlix Review #18: Fitzcarraldo

I'm an avowed Werner Herzog fan. To me, the man makes cinematic magic. His narratives aren't incredibly strong or typically arched, frequently his main characters don't grow or change that much, his shots are long and ponderous, sometimes to a fault, but holy moley. Look at those movies!!! He doesn't really make movies, he makes CINEMA. Although I'm a huge fan, I haven't seen nearly as much of him as I'd like. Fitzcarraldo is one of his big hits, so it's about time I check it out.

It's everything you want from a Herzog movie. His frequent collaborator Klaus Kinski plays the titular character, a man in the wilds of the jungle who, while everyone else is making a fortune running rubber up the river, is trying to build a railroad through the bush and make ice to sell using chemicals. Those near-impossible feats are just his day jobs. His real passion is to build a first-class opera house in the jungle and bring over all the great stars of Europe. He brings his record player with him wherever he goes and plays opera for whoever will listen, and even some who won't. He's indulged in his fancies by Molly, the madame of a local brothel. Though Fitzcarraldo has no money and his efforts are all failures, Molly still gives him large sums of money to follow his passions, because Molly has money to burn. Molly, like the rubber barons, is in the business of exploiting the locals, and business is very, very good.

The main thrust of the movie is Fitcarraldo's newest scheme. He's going to buy an unclaimed rubber plantation and beat the unbeatable river that has kept so many away by the boat across a small strip of land where the unavigable river and a much gentler river almost meet. Sound insane? How about this: Herzog actually did it. He gathered a lot of natives, built some pulleys, blew up some hills, and drug a boat over hilly land and settled it into water on the other side. It's not quite what you see in the movie, as Herzog had a bulldozer to help him shape the land and push the boat, but what you're watching borders on documentary. Herzog seems to understand the madness of compulsion to such a degree that he cannot portray it, he almost must become it. The stories about the making of a Herzog movie are almost as well known and discussed as the movies themselves, and Fitzcarraldo is one of the most stunning examples of this.

Herzog, if nothing else, knows the power of images. He can not only make them powerful and beautiful, he can make them resonate. Not to keep beating up on poor old Transformers, but it's striking how much money goes into each frame of that movie, and to give Bay credit, a lot of his movies do actually look good, it's just... hollow. The images are pretty, but what do they mean? They aren't even really that awe inspiring. Contrast some robot ripping the top off one of the great pyramids in Transformers 2 to the slow, beautiful, striking image of a boat slowly creeping up that hill. It may sound a little film snobby, and it may even be a little film snobby, but why not? It's not just the extraordinary feat of the boat going uphill, the movie is filled with stunning images. The rubber baron feeding the money roll to the fish is brilliant and shocking. The way Herzog films Fitzcarraldo treating his record player as though it is some holy relic, fighting against the barons who profane against it and using it to conquer the savage natives, is wonderful. Even the very opening, with Fitzcarraldo frantically rowing Molly in a little rowboat up to the opera house miles and miles upriver from their settlement because their boat has broken down, is brilliant. It does what any truly great opening shot does - encapsulates the entire movie in one image. Fitzcarraldo fighting frantically against nature to reach his vision of The Opera, civilization made manifest, while Molly sits along for the ride, offering encouragement and gentle barbs. And that triumphant ending! Fantastic!

And what can you say about Klaus Kinski? The man was a treasure, a mad flury of intensity and brilliance. It's easy to get lost in the mythos of Kinski the Madman and lose sight of the fact that Kinski was an incredible actor. He was fearless, certainly, and his complete, nearly pathological dedication shone through every roll he took, but its incredible to look at the range of characters he played within just Herzog films alone. Nosferatu, Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde - it would be easy to lump them together as "madmen" or "men overtaken by passion," but that's doing a huge disservice to Kinski and to Herzog. Look at the restraint and sadness of Nosferatu, the lawless, almost nihilistic anarchy of Cobra Verde, the supreme zealotry of Aguirre and the vulnerability of Fitzcarraldo. Certainly the man was a scene-chewing ham, but he was a scene-chewing ham that could finesse a nuanced understanding of what made men of all ilks go to extremes when he could just have easily "played crazy" every time, and for that alone it's hard to underestimate the genius of Kinski. I think this is one of his greatest performances, as the vulnerability on display here isn't something we usually get to see with Kinski. Watch the way he listens to opera, as though the beauty of it could possibly destroy him, but he cannot help himself. The way he leans on Molly for comfort and support, how he deals with his crew and the natives in a way that is both stern and pleading. It's an exemplory performance from an already extraordinary performer.

Also fascinating to watch in the film is the way Herzog deals with the native population in the movie is brilliantly subtle and interesting. Herzog had a (purportedly) good relationship with both the locals and the government, and both wanted him to return after the success of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Why I feel they would welcome him back is his believable, very telling portrayal of the native population. He allows the politics of the films to work their way in the same way politics works its way into real life. Herzog neither deifies the sanctity of a holy naive peoples, nor does he overly dramatize their persecution. He manages to be extraordinarily political by leaving politics out of it and simply filming the proceedings as they would have occured.

If you've never seen a Herzog movie, I cannot recommend him enough. He's worth seeing, if anything, just to get an opinion on him. You'll certainly see a movie unlike anything you've seen before. It's odd, although Fitzcarraldo is one of his most famous, I'd actually wouldn't recommend it to begin your Herzog viewing. Cobra Verde has much more action and wackiness, Invincible and Rescue Dawn have much more conventional narratives and his brillliant documentary Grizzly Man is a fantastic piece of film work. If you like those, and heavens I hope you do, check out Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre: the Wrath of God, Nosferatu. If you like those, get into his REALLY crazy stuff, like the "documentary" Lessons in Darkness. What I love about Herzog is that, to me, he personifies what I want from film. He shows me a world I've never seen, some place strange and unusual, but also shows me something about myself, the world around me, how we all live. His films are dreams where the subconscious speaks hidden truths to us through bizarre, vivid imagery and outlandish characterization. He is visual poetry in the absolute best sense of the term. If you're curious about film not just as a storytelling medium, but as art, Herzog demands to be seen.

Jake Thomas

Story Writer. Marvel Comics Editor. Wrangler of Squids.