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Fitzcarraldo (1982)


 Epic poster, but that's its problem
Epic poster, but that's its problem

Genre: Drama (West Germany, Peru)

Starring: Klaus Kinski (Jack The Ripper • Nosferatu), Claudia Cardinale (Once Upon a Time in the West)

Directed By: Werner Herzog (Grizzly ManThe Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans)

Overview:  At the turn of the century, a man with the dream of opening an opera house in the Amazon jungle embarks upon an adventure to finance that dream. He buys a steam ship and sets off for a virgin forest of rubber trees, unreachable by the treacherous river.

Normally I'm not one for spoilers. My approach has always been to give enough to build an interest while still leaving enough out of my review that you, dear reader, will get a surprise should you decide to watch said film. Often the big twist or the secret plan of our characters is the thing you want to save from the audience – like Rosebud for example. Well Fitzcarraldo’s epically-illustrated, most-famous-of-posters saves everyone the trouble of keeping the hook a secret.

In reality, Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald was a Peruvian-American rubber baron who, in the late 1800s, constructed an isthmus, which is another way of saying a narrow strip of land connecting two larger masses of land, like the Panama Canal that led to his wealth. The real-life Fitzcarrald dug through a land mass to reach the water on the other side. This allowed him to literally tap into the rubber unavailable to other explorers of the past. Putting aside the probably sound accusations of ethic displacement and gross exploitation of Amazonian native tribes, he’s considered an adventurer, a man who made an incredible geographic discovery, and a man who managed to pull a steam ship across a mountain.


Always tootin his horn
Always tootin his horn


Fitzcarraldo is the story of Brian Sweeney "Fitzcarraldo" Fitzgerald, a Peruvian-American who dreams of building an opera house in the Amazon, and to have Enrico Caruso, his idol, perform on the first night. To earn the money that would allow his dream to come to fruition, he tries his hand at harvesting rubber from the Amazon. He buys a stream ship, hires a crew and sets off towards the trees that will make him rich. Rather than following the current to where the rubber trees actually are, he surprises everyone when he heads upriver instead, only to reveal his genius of dragging the boat across the land to avoid the deadly rapids. Thus we reach the image so dramatically portrayed in the poster image above. What happens after that I shant spoil for you. Rather, let’s speak of its cinematic worth in the grand scheme of cinema, the 1001 tome and just plain old enjoyment value, shall we?


Firstly, once you get over the fact that Fitzcarraldo is a German film starring a German-speaking actor playing the role of an American named Fitzgerald, it's easy to move on to the actual story. Fitzcarraldo, played by the perfectly hideous Nosferatu-faced Klaus Kinski is a passionate character, a real dreamer, a man so driven by Caruso that in the opening sequence, his hands are bloody from rowing for two days to catch a glimpse of him at the opera. Although his dream carries the film I found I much preferred the fun moments where we were graced with the likes of Huerequeque! He’s the excitable, self-important drunk cook of the steamer ship. Much of the film takes place going upriver, and for as much as the 1001 tome tells us it’s nothing like Apocalypse Now I couldn’t help but draw an obvious comparison, which in this case is a good thing. Beautiful as the film is, epic as many of the scenes are, its pacing is often slow and at 158 minutes, though enjoyable, can feel… 'pastoral' at times. Yet, Fitzcarraldo has a tremendous ending and it's certainly an original character study.

And of course Werner used no special effects
And of course Werner used no special effects


Performance: 8 Cinematography: 8 Script: 7 Plot: 7 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 74% (Fitz Into An Evening)

I’m told the story of the story is a far better story. The documentary Burden of Dreams, and to a lesser extent My Best Fiend - Klaus Kinski, tells of the tribulations is the tale of the relationship these two men had prior to and during the 5 films they made together, including such interesting tidbits as Kinski’s indomitable rage.


My greatest disappointment in Fitzcarraldo was that I wish the secret had been kept. Imagine these posters: Citizen Kane, illustrating what Rosebud was, a package of Soylent Green with a list of ingredients prominently displayed, or The Empire Strikes Back, advertised with a genealogy chart. Overall, knowing ‘Fitzcarraldo’s plan’ doesn’t ruin the enjoyment of the film, but it would have bumped up the pleasure quite a bit, especially give that the plan’s secretive nature was a relatively integral part of the first half of the picture. Still I can’t blame that poster art, compelling as it is. On the upside, one of my good film-friendly friends has the above Fitzcarraldo poster prominently displayed in his home, and I no longer need to feel guilty about being in its shadow. Another one off the grand 1001 list, another cultural reference gained, another shared opinion.

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