Tuesday 22 May 2007

Fitzcarraldo (1982) Werner Herzog

Ten years after the amazing journey that became Aguirre, the Wrath of God, one of the most astounding pieces of cinema ever made, Werner Herzog returned to South America to make another astounding piece of cinema. This one doesn't compare as a finished work but it has moments of sheer magic, proving for the fourth time that Herzog and Kinski together are a combination impossible not to watch. This time he's in Brazil, in the Amazon basin, though it's supposed to be Peru in a place known as Cayahuari Yacu, the land where God did not finish creation. Only after man is gone will he return to finish His work.

Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, originally played by Jason Robards but replaced by the almost inevitable Klaus Kinski, is an opera nut. At the beginning of the film he has travelled twelve hundred miles from Iquitos to Manaus to see and hear Enrico Caruso just once in his life. After all the greatest singer of them all just doesn't perform in Peru every day of the week! He gets there in time to see the great man die right at the end of the opera, but it's enough to believe that he pointed right at him.

Now Fitzgerald, known in Peru as Fitzcarraldo because it's easier for them to pronounce, is a dreamer. He's been working on the trans-Andean railway but that fell through, so he switched to producing ice in the middle of the jungle. Now he has a new dream, to build an grand opera house in Iquitos for Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt to open. He's certainly a dreamer, and one who doesn't let the opinions of others, including Mother Nature herself, stand in his way. Molly, his companion on the quest upriver to the opera, runs a high class brothel; he lives down by the river with his parrot, captivating a bunch of native children and a racing pig with 78s of Caruso.

In both his previous films for Herzog, Nosferatu and Woyzeck, Klaus Kinski seemed completely detached from life and reality. In Nosferatu he was Count Dracula, centuries old and with powers beyond our understanding, and in Woyzeck he was an abused and tormented soldier, but the result is detachment whichever way. Here he's full of life and culture and even more drive than any of the other characters in the film, who for a change are far less connected to what we know as life than Kinski's character.

To bring his culture to the jungle, he needs finance. The local money is in rubber but the nouveau riche rubber barons are more interested in feeding thousand dollar bills to fish than bringing opera to anyone, let alone bare asses. So with Madam Molly's money, he buys the exploitation rights to a large square of completely inaccessible land and a broken down steamship. He's worked out that this land is only inaccessible by standard means and has a plan to bypass standard means entirely.

And here's where reality and fiction blur. To make a film about a half lunatic dreamer who decides to drag a 340 ton steamship over a mountain, from one river to another, without the benefit of modern technology, Werner Herzog, who could well be described as a half lunatic dreamer himself, brings his cameras to the Amazon basin and drags a 340 ton steamship over a mountain, from one river to another, without the benefit of modern technology. Talk about realism.

The middle third of the movie is the best part, a real Heart of Darkness trip, with the steamship Maria Aida heading up the Pachitea river with native drumming all around them but no natives in sight. The Jivaro indians here have been apparently wandering the area for ten generations waiting for a white god in a white vessel, and Fitzcarraldo in his white suit and white skin and white hat fits the bill. Of course what they want isn't clear and it's not likely to be anything like what he wants, but they agree to help him out anyway.

The film is two hours and thirty eight minutes long, which is too many minutes, and in fact Roger Ebert apparently described the film like this: 'It may be overlong and meandering, but I wouldn't ever have missed seeing it.' He's right. There is serious magic here, along with the flaws, as far as cinematography, atmosphere, music, acting, you name it. There are some wonderful characters for a start.

Fitzcarraldo revisits his old railway site to reuse the iron track but discovers one employee bizarrely still there after six years and no pay, keeping everything in the condition he feels it deserves. He's played by Grande Othelo and he's a joy. The fat bloated rubber baron known as Don Aquilino reminds me in his way of a Britney Spears or a Paris Hilton, rich beyond all reason and without the mind to be able to deal with that fact. He's José Lewgoy and he's about as believable as any character with more money than sense. He inflicts a spy called Cholo, completely openly, on Fitzcarraldo to find out what he's up to, but Cholo switches allegiances at the point where he realises how insane his new boss must be. He's Miguel Ángel Fuentes, who has been in other films I know, and his next movie, to leap from one end of the scale to the other, was Frankenstein's Great Aunt Tillie.

The visuals are often awesome too, from the opening impressionism to huge trees tumbling into the river behind what seems like the entire Jivaro tribe. The inevitable great moment is when the the Maria Aida starts moving up the hill, with the strength of Cholo and the Jivaro indians and a little bit of technical innovation, and it is an awe inspiring sight, especially when accompanied by Caruso, a powerful score by Popul Vuh and some native music to boot. What happens after that is just as awe inspiring because we know that someone like Werner Herzog isn't messing around with tiny little models or CGI, and instead decided to send a bloody great steamship into the powerful hands of Mother Nature and cause more than a little physical damage to those members of the cast and crew that joined on him on the journey.

That sort of dedication is why this is worth watching. Kinski is the bonus, especially when he was so out of control in the way that only Kinski could be and the Jivaro indians observed it, talked to Herzog and offered quietly to kill him. Amazing.

No comments: