I have a lot of exposure to kid-oriented fare these days (what with Max influencing many of our viewing choices), and after watching the animated feature “Epic” the other day, I was struck by the factthat even something like that, which I actually liked quite a lot, is beholden to many rigid rules of commercial cinema – the bad guy, the young female heroine, the romantic subplot, the sidekick comic relief, the sure knowledge that all will turn out perfectly in the end. It’s one well-honed story point after another.
I craved something wild, crazy, unpredictable and original. And I knew it was time to finally watch “Fitzcarraldo”.
In early 1982, I was 17 and already quite the film buff. As an early member of the “Quality Paperback Book Club” (anyone remember QPB? Were they in Canada?), one of my first selections was a hefty tome on the history of film which I pored over with gusto. I enjoyed silent films, I read “American Cinematographer”, and I even attended the roadshow presentation of the restored three-screen silent epic with original colorization, Abel Gance’s “Napoleon”.
That year, Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” got a lot of attention. It told an unusual and epic story (fictional, but inspired by some real-life events) of an entrepreneur and would-be rubber baron in turn-of-the-century Peru named Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, who attempts (with the help of countless indigenous labourers) to drag a steamship over a mountain – in order to access remote rubber-plant territory and make a fortune, with which he plans to realize his dream of building a great opera house in Iquitos.
The film got attention for more than its unusual plot, however. For starters, it was one of the most difficult films ever made, as the fictional engineering challenge was in large part being done for real. Then there was the on-set conflict engendered by Herzog himself, a figure not unlike his fiery, passionate and slightly mad protagonist. He had a stormy relationship with his actors, crew and the indigenous people who were a major part of the story and production. At one point he apparently threatened to shoot the film’s star, Klaus Kinski, when he threatened to leave the production.
The funny thing is, I well remember reading about this film, being interested in it, being very aware of its controversial backstory, and yet – I never actually went to see it. I don’t know why that is, but somehow I missed it, and never rented it in the intervening years. But it had remained on my mind, a film I was intrigued with from afar.
Finally, tonight, I satisfied my curiosity by renting and viewing it at last. And I must say, it lived up to my anticipation.
I knew I was in for some unconventional cinema, an over-the-top story, and – possibly – a bleak ending. I honestly didn’t know if Fitzcarraldo actually achieves his goal, but I suspected he would end up, at best, as one of those characters who dreams big but doesn’t quite make it. At worst, I suspected a grim ending with no guarantee that all the characters would even survive.
Now, having finally watched “Fitzcarraldo” after all these years, I can say this: it was worth the wait, and without revealing the ending, I can say that it is not grim. Quite the contrary.
The film pulls you into the hero’s outrageous quest and has you rooting for his success; it has characters and situations that defy your initial expecations; but it also is full of drama as well as poetically beautiful images and moments. The sight of “Fitz” responding to the drumbeat of the (as-yet unseen) natives by playing a recording of an Enrico Caruso aria, and causing the drums to fall silent, is just one of many unforgettable moments.
The final sequence took my breath away and brought a tear to my eye with its surprisingly touching expression of the main character’s love of music. It leaves one with the idea that even if you dream big and fail, you can still – in some way – succeed, and take away great joy from even a very challenging experience.
So if you’re daunted by the idea of renting a 35-year-old German historical drama… don’t be. “Fitzcarraldo” is a breathtaking entertainment, full of spectacle, humour, and mystery, and a study of obsession and grand, mad dreams that defies expectations and leaves you exhilarated.
PS – You won’t find this one on Netflix – why not rent it from your local video store – like Black Dog Video– while you still can?