Fitzcarraldo Review

Although he had thought of Klaus Kinski for the lead role in Fitzcarraldo, director Werner Herzog thought that filming for a number of months in the jungle would have been a difficult enough experience without having to additonally manage the notoriously volatile actor. However, Herzog had to abandon an early version of the film with Jason Robards and Mick Jagger (intriguing footage of which can be seen in the documentary My Best Fiend) when Robards fell ill and, inevitably, the only person crazy enough to go out to the Amazonian jungle and take a chance on a troubled production was Kinski.

“It is only the dreamers who move mountains”, says Claudia Cardinale as the wife of Brian Sweeny Fitzgerald, and there can be no more succinct description of the theme and purpose of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Herzog’s friend and nemesis Klaus Kinski plays the title role of Fitzcarraldo, a failed Trans-Andean railway entrepreneur whose dreams and ambitions are always greater than people’s ability to achieve them. Always reluctant to give up, Fitzcarraldo has a dream of building an opera house in the Amazonian jungle, to bring the music of Verdi and the voice of Caruso not to the decadent and obscenely rich landowners of the rubber plantations, but to the poor people, the Indians of Iquitos. His idea is regarded with scorn by investors and no-one will help him. In order to raise the money he needs to achieve this dream he comes up with an equally ambitious scheme to tap into the natural resources of a region of the Peruvian jungle as yet unexplored and inaccessible because of savage head-hunting natives and dangerous rapids. But to do it, he will have to drag a steamboat over an Amazonian mountain.

Fitzcarraldo isn’t short of ambition, but he is short of people with an imagination to equal his own vision or even a belief in his capabilities. It is surely a situation that Herzog would have been very familiar with. If he hadn’t already proven his ambition and ability to achieve them in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, itself both a film about ambition and perseverance in the pursuit of unrealistic goals and a demonstration of what could be achieved in its very making, Fitzcarraldo’s Sisyphean challenge could very well be seen in the same light. However, I like to think of Fitzcarraldo more as a gift and a tribute to the person who embodied the determination in some of the director’s best films. Herzog in his 1999 documentary film, My Best Fiend (also reviewed here as part of the Herzog Kinski Collection), attempted as someone who was close to the man to give some kind of insight into what Klaus Kinski was all about and what it was that made their collaborations so unique and productive. Where the documentary, fascinating thought it is, fails to give a fully rounded portrait of Kinski, I think it is in the character of Brian Sweeny Fitzgerald we can see the real Kinski – expressing warmth, sensitivity, love, excessive ambition and self-belief, and the ability to push himself and others to extraordinary lengths in his willingness to give something truly great and truly magnificent to the people.

The DVD is released on Region 2 in the UK as part of Anchor Bay’s Herzog Kinski Collection. Also included in the boxset are Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Nosferatu, Woyzeck, Cobra Verde and Herzog’s documentary film about Kinski, My Best Fiend.

The DVD transfer again looks like a NTSC to PAL transfer. I don’t know if that actually is the case, but it might explain the general softness and lack of definition in the transfer. It’s not a bad picture – on the contrary, colours are warm and rich, close-ups are sharp and detailed, but medium to wide shots appear fuzzy and unclear. Blacks and colours are strong, but fairly flat and lacking any deeper definition or detail. The image otherwise has little in the way of artefacts or flaws, but it’s far from perfect, even considering the age of the film – and it’s not that old.

You have a choice of audio languages. There is a German Dolby Digital 2.0 track, a German Dolby Digital 5.1 remix and an English Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. None of them are entirely satisfactory either from a sound quality point of view or from a language point of view. Technically, because of the international nature of the casting, all the soundtracks are overdubs. However, the English soundtrack is the one that matches the lip movements of most of the principal actors, including Kinski and Cardinale, and Kinski did do his own English and German dubs. The German is no doubt better delivered and it is the version Herzog himself regards as the most authentic, but there’s not much wrong with Kinski’s English performance. Fortunately, thanks to Anchor Bay, you have the choice of whichever you are happiest with. The 5.1 remixes are fine and I have no problem with them in this film. The soundtrack remains centre based and any use of surrounds seems to be subtly and appropriately used. The actual quality isn’t great, but this is almost certainly down to the nature of the recording and overdubbing, coming across a bit echoey at times.

There is another fine Commentary track on this release, Herzog again interviewed by Norman Hill with occasional interjections from producer Lucki Stipetic. Three and a half years in pre-production and plagued by financial and logistical problems, the commentary gives a good account of how the film made it onto the screen, the troubles they encountered and Kinski’s behaviour on-set, some of which was documented in Les Blank’s ‘Burden of Dreams’ (unfortunately not included here). In addition to the commentary is an anamorphic Trailer (3:02) with German voiceover and English subtitles. The Film Notes are mostly taken from Herzog on Herzog, and Biographies are included for Kinski, Cardinale and Herzog. A Photo Gallery is made up of 12 production stills and candid behind-the-scenes photographs.

There’s a bit of hokum in the story of Fitzcarraldo - Kinski playing a man of Irish descent, the “White God” arriving among the Indians, the whole follow-the-dream moral, and there are surely easier ways of achieving what he was trying to do without dragging a boat across a mountain – but none of it matters in the slightest. The film’s sincerity is genuine, its ambition unparalleled and its achievement remarkable. In the character of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog put the finest human characteristics and no less an actor than Klaus Kinski brought them to life. A fine film, a decent DVD and a worthwhile commentary track from the director make this a fairly complete film experience.

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