Brian Sweeney “Fitzcarraldo” Fitzgerald is not only a dreamer, he’s one who makes things happen regardless of the obstacles. He’s also one who’s capable of not only turning failures into triumphs and isn’t afraid to change his definition of success to do so.
Directed by Werner Herzog, Fitzcarraldo is a film about the intersections of civilization, the natural world, and pre-civilized cultures. It’s about the relationship as well as the back and forth of the natural world with the technological world. Specifically it takes the form of one man’s efforts to bring the art of civilization, in the form of opera and the tenor Enrico Caruso, to the wild jungles of Peru. Documenting this struggle with long takes, often without dialogue, the film takes the point of view of its protagonist (Klaus Kinski) showing us the actions of the natives through his puzzled mind, yet tries its best to never assume a superior position to them, or their environment. One of the fascinating aspects of the film is watching the natural world and the technological one duke it out. As soon as one seems to gain the upper hand, the other hits back harder than ever.
Viewed alongside (preferably before) Les Blank’s documentary, Burden of Dreams, about Herzog’s four-year ordeal of making the film, it soon occurs that the writer-director might have imbued his title character with some of his own traits, dreams, and desires.
“Without dreams we would be cows in a field,” says Herzog in the documentary. “And I don’t want to live like that. I live my life, or I end my life with this project.”
Despite all of the danger in both the story and the making of the film, the most fascinating pieces are how both Fitzcarraldo and Herzog are both driven to complete their project, yet are also capable of making adjustments, sometimes very large ones, to get their goals met. Fitzcarraldo’s dream is to create civilization in the jungle. Herzog’s dream with this project, might be said to portray this fight, but in order to do so, he has to tame the jungle, or at least parts of it (much like his character), in order to get his film completed.
The film begins by introducing us to Fitzcarraldo and his love, Molly (Claudia Cardinale). We learn that he is broke, and she, a madam, is supporting him. He longs to be a success in another venture and she bankrolls his purchase of a steamship to fulfill his dream.
Once he’s on his way he has to worry about the usual things a financier of nautical adventures has to deal with, the ability and willingness of the crew to do their jobs, the adventure of navigating difficult waters, and the concern that he’s put his whole life in the hands of a captain (Paul Hittscher), who while confident, seems just a little bit mad.
The real drama begins traveling up river when the captain tells them they are being watched by hostiles. He relates his own previous experience with them in which he was only one of a few of the sailors to make it back alive. Suddenly, the trees crash into the water behind them cutting off any means of escape and as they look back they see the river filled with natives aiming their arrows in canoes slowly making their way to the big ship.
Perhaps taking his cues and style from ethnographic filmmakers, Herzog allows the camera to slowly reveal the action, the suspense, and the resolution as we survey the interactions between the crew, the natives, and the environment.
Questions pervade the narrative: Why do the natives decide to help? What is their real goal? Why do they disappear? What will they do if they return? What happens if they fulfill their plan to bring the boat to the other river? For the crew, the uncertainty of the landscape is only one part of their challenge. The mystery and uncertainty of the natives is the deadly other.
Fitzcarraldo meets the challenges with slow determination. Although the crew is ready and willing to act quickly, Fitzcarraldo waits and watches before making his move. Given that Herzog’s film took him four years, three boats, and two leads to accomplish, it can be said that he too is practiced in the art of patience.
Fitzcarraldo’s plan involves going down one river, hauling it overland over a strip of mountainous jungle, then putting in at a parallel river to get to their final destination.
Cables tighten, pulleys creak, the boat heaves and creeps slowly up the hill powered only by the power of the natives turning large wooden cranks. This might not sound like riveting cinema, but it’s here that Herzog’s determination to unveil the drama shot-by-shot, step-by-step really pays off. With each turn, each sound, the tension tightens and we wonder if all will come to naught. It not only serves the suspense, but it shows us that the way things are done is just as important as the outcome.
We stare at the chief’s stoney face and wonder if what his thoughts are about what he’s being asked to do. Will he cooperate? And what does this all mean to him and his people?
The natives live to their own time, remaining unhurried by Fitzcarraldo, even departing when it makes sense to them to do so, even though the crew has no clue what has made them leave. Like him, we watch and as we watch we draw our own conclusions and come to our own understanding. Herzog shows rather than tells.
What we’re left with at the end of the film is a question as to what constitutes a dream and what constitutes success. Does it count as a dream fulfilled if we have to make compromise after compromise, so that when we finish it bears little resemblance to what we first envisioned, or should dreams be just as malleable as our mind?