I came to Fitzcarraldo with only a little experience with Werner Herzog’s narrative films. I’d seen the completely bizarre The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and the solidly mediocre Rescue Dawn, but not much in between. My real love for Herzog came from his documentaries. The best of the seem to be a direct pipeline into the filmmaker’s head—we see his extremely unique interpretation of the world, underlined by a relentless, heartfelt earnestness and compassion. The only other thing I knew about Fitzcarraldo was that some people dragged a boat up a mountain—and by some people I mean an indigenous crew that Herzog and his producer team hired—and that it featured some of the most insane of the insane Klaus Kinski.
Most of the preconceptions were met—Kinski is crazy, there is a boat that gets pulled up a mountain—but there was one other thing I hadn’t expected as well. The film is very, very slow. Perhaps this is escalated if you are watching the film, waiting to get to the boat and the mountain, but it’s hard to believe any viewer wouldn’t feel this way. The first act is especially and unnecessarily long and drawn out. Far too much time goes by before Fitzcarraldo and his team even get on the boat. And this could be forgiven, maybe, if it wasn’t that the filmmaking is also rather makeshift. The plotting feels disorganized. The characters feel one-dimensional and over-baked. Kinski is his usual electrifying self, and he is somehow so alive that you can’t help but watch him every moment he is on screen, even if he’s next to Claudia Cardinale, but you feel that it’s Kinski that is compelling rather than the character of Fitzcarraldo. And of course, we shouldn’t necessarily expect a perfectly plotted, well-crafted masterpiece from Herzog. Admittedly, I love his films for their passion, not their technique. But the first 45 plus minutes of the film lacks both, making it a slog to get through.
In interesting symmetry with Fitzcarraldo’s journey, though, once you make it to the other side things start to get interesting. There is an especially magical shot with Fitzcarraldo climbed up high on the deck of his boat, blasting Caruso out of his gramophone to the jungle as it passes by. The symbolism, as throughout the film, is blatant, and this is not the first time we have heard Caruso. But the effect of the locked off camera on the boat and the floating forest of the background, with this character standing proudly by his gramophone, is profound. It hints at the power of the film to come.
This hits full force during the most famous scene, when the indigenous crew under Fitzcarraldo’s direction constructs a massive pulley system to bring the boat up the side of the mountain. The film transitions suddenly into a documentary. There is little emphasis on building the scene in a narrative way, instead it takes on the fly-on-the-wall feel of a Wiseman film. And watching the massive pulley system be constructed and put to use is remarkable, with or without the context that this was a real thing that actually happened. The landscape is transformed to giant stairs of mud, trees are shaved down, hollowed out, and notched together. You watch hundreds of men working on the hillside the teams they must have been broken into, the various jobs and organization such a thing must have required, and all the manpower and investment in this wholly unnecessary task.
That is of course part of the point. And the critique of Fitzcarraldo, the insanity of “civilizing” the “uncivilized,” cuts both ways. There are reports of injuries and even death among the indigenous crew on the set, due at least in part to the carelessness and chaos of the production team. Such a claim is not one that can simply be shrugged off as art requires sacrifice. The situation is much more complex than that. The power of Fitzcarraldo is when it shows that complexity, a metaphor made literal. Unfortunately, all too often it seems to be a little too hurried, a little to frantic, and slides into cliche instead.