on 18 July 2004
This is a fantastic film, but one small word of warning - the subtitling on the DVD edition is terrible. Jumpy and with large parts of conversation missing, the subtitles mar what is an otherwise flawless film, and as such I was forced to deduct a star in the rating.
I would still highly recommend this film, a dazzling picture about one man's overwelming desire to bring his vision to life - an opera house in the South American jungle.
Nearly a quarter of a century on, Fitzcarraldo has lost none of its impact. One thing which makes it still stand out so much today is its reality - not the plot, which takes a small incident from forgotten history and exaggerates it into a grandiose epic on the reality of dreams, but the fact that, with the exception of what appears to be one superior model shot in the rapids sequence, everything you see is done for real. A real ship dragged over a real mountain by real extras in a real location. In the CGi era, it's almost like watching a documentary, with Herzog literally BECOMING Fitzcarraldo as he acts out his dreams for real.
For all the fireworks between Kinski and Herzog, they bring the best out of each other: Kinski is every inch the obsessed dreamer and you really believe he HAS to bring opera to the jungle in a way that you simply can't imagine Jason Robards pulling off (Robards left the film after falling ill: from the brief extracts of his scenes with Mick Jagger to appear in the documentary Burden of Dreams - not included on the single-disc version but available separately from Criterion or in the two-disc edition from Starz - it was a blessing in disguise for the film). What's more, by the end of the movie, you really feel that Fitzcarraldo has earned his small triumph, and the wondrous smiles on the faces of Kinski and Claudia Cardinale prove that cinema's greatest weapon is the human face.
It's just a shame that Anchor Bay's DVD misses several key lines in the subtitles from the superior German version, which meant skipping back the DVD to play it with the inferior English dub to catch the missing lines before switching back to German again, a sad blemish on an otherwise excellent disc that's repeated on the two-disc reissue from Starz that uses the same master.
Unlike the previous release from Anchor Bay (Starz is the company's new name rather than a new label), the two-disc edition does come with the infamous feature-length documentary about the making of the film, Burden of Dreams, although none of that film's copious extras to be found on the US Criterion DVD.
Following the astonishing trail of disasters Werner Herzog faced making Fitzcarraldo on location in Peru - including tribal wars, a seriously ill Jason Robards' departure after 40% of the film had been shot, one ship running aground due to low rainfalls and another obstinately refusing to move up the mountain - Les Blank's famous and once groundbreaking documentary has dated badly.
It's an excellent portrait of Herzog's obsession and the growing madness surrounding the shoot, but it's more a catalogue of catastrophes rather than a candid view of the shoot: although unused footage was shot of Kinski's tantrums (and can be seen in Herzog's documentary My Best Fiend, not included here), the star and director's relationship is all but ignored and you tend to get the feel of a superior travelog giving the official version (a lot of the other real crises happen offscreen). There's plenty of absurdity on view, such as prostitutes being brought to the native workers camp on the advice of the local Catholic missionary, but 'Hearts of Darkness' it ain't. But you can't help but admire the way that, unlike Fitzcarraldo, who falls prey to the dreams of the natives he thinks are working for him, Herzog manages to cling on to his dreams and ultimately triumph, incorporating each new on-set disaster into his film.
An excellent companion piece to 'Fitzcarraldo,' but it probably has less appeal to those not so interested in the film.
on 18 June 2009
The subtitles on this DVD are faulty. Often whole sentences are omitted, making it impossible to follow conversations. The beginning of a sentence is nearly always present, but after it ends, with an ellipsis, the subsequent subtitle doesn't appear, even though a character continues talking. This happens regularly throughout the film and quickly renders it incoherent.
The problem with the bonus disc, which contains the Burden of Dreams documentary, is more superficial. The icon which is supposed to show you which option you are choosing is absent from the main menu, and it appears in the wrong places on the scene selection menu, e.g. half on the picture of a scene and half off of it.
I had to return this DVD because of its subtitle problem. I contacted the DVD's maker, Anchor Bay, about its faults but didn't receive a response.
I will admit that this film was forced on me as I watched it as part of a German film module at University, and though many of my fellow students did not warm to this film, I certainly did.
This is an epic. Special effects are redundant in this film as much of what actually is done is not a work of simulation but it was actually performed. The cover of the video shows a sail barge being hoisted over land - that was actually done! So much of this film will just stop you in your tracks and think "wow" at just the scale and grandeur of the filming project.
You have to appreciate Operah to appreciate this film, though one way or another if you ever love anything so much that you would want to reshape the land then you will understand and love the sentiment that this film contains.
I loved this film, and though essentially it is a tragedy, unlike most tragic films the ending burns with triumph and finishes leaving you thinking that even things that at first seem impossible are at least worth attempting.
on 20 July 2000
fitzcarraldo is probably the most epic film ever to come out of europe.klaus kinski replaces mick jagger & jason robards in the lead role which he was born to play. borrowing loosely from herzog's previous 'aguirre' and conrads 'heart of darkness' this is by all accounts a truly stunning piece of film making. herzog's severely focused direction brings out all the intensity in his leading man and with the strugggle of controlling an indigenous population and the practicality of raising the ship makes fitzcarraldo a truly uplifting experience
on 12 May 2011
Im a great fan of this film - but have never gotten round to buying the DVD, until now. At the low price, I thought it was a must - however, the films subtitles are apauling - with subtitles missing from single lines to entire scenes, it simply makes the film impossible to watch, let alone enjoy.
Will be replacing with a copy from another stockist.
on 27 October 2015
Warning: there are some spoilers ahead in this review
This two and a half hour German film released in 1982 is one of Werner Herzog’s best movies. It reads mostly as a homage to crazy visionaries, people whom Herzog clearly identifies with. Based on a true story, but taking considerable liberties with the truth, this film tells the story of one Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski, who is terrific), an opera mad Irish entrepreneur living in Iquitos, in the Peruvian Amazon in the late 19th century. Fitzgerald was called Fitzcarraldo by the locals, who found his original name difficult to pronounce. A plan by him to build a railway crossing the Andes had failed, and his next project of making ice wasn’t going anywhere. After a talk with a rubber baron, he came up with a new plan: to exploit rubber in a very remote part of the Amazon rainforest and with the profits made from the venture build an opera house in Iquitos. For that purpose, he buys a river boat with money from the madam of a brothel (played by Claudia Cardinale) who sympathizes with him. He hires a rowdy crew to accompany him in his boat to his jungle tract, including a nearsighted captain, a drunken cook and a giant Indian called Cholo. Now, the area where he had the concession to exploit rubber trees could only be accessed through a river with impossible rapids to cross. But a navigable river ran nearby, and he came up with the idea of carrying the whole boat between the rivers with the help of nearby Indians. Only problem, those Indians were hostile head hunters, known to kill previous trespassers in the area. And to make things worse, the terrain where the portage of the boat took place was not plain but was rather a steep hill (apparently, the real Fitzcarraldo did carry a boat through a hill, only he disassemble first into pieces, and later assemble it back in the nearby river).
In a superb extended scene, Fitzcarraldo manages to get the Indians to carry the boat to the other river, but afterwards, things start unraveling badly. But just when the film looks like is going to have a downbeat ending, Herzog pulls out a surprisingly heartwarming finale, which I won’t reveal here but in which Fitzcarraldo partly fullfills his dreams - though some reviewers find it anticlimactic compared with the scene of the boat going up the hill.
Originally Jason Robards was going to play Fitzcarraldo, with Mick Jagger playing his sidekick. Eventually, Robards got a tropical disease during the filming and had to bow out on medical advice, and Jagger also abandoned the shooting due to his musical commitments with the Rolling Stones (by the way, there is some footage around the Internet showing Robards and Jagger playing their characters and is clear that they would have been dreadful in the movie). Herzog decided to call Kinski, who doesn’t look Irish at all, but had the right crazy intensity for the character, while writing off Jagger’s roler. By casting Kisnki, the movie turn into a German speaking film, which looks incongruous in a film set in the Peruvian Amazon, though you will eventually suspend your disbelief.
So says Claudia Cardinale’s Molly in support of her partner, Klaus Kinski’s obsessive Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald ('Fitzcarraldo’) and his plan to bring Caruso’s opera to the remotest outpost of the Peruvian jungle. Herzog’s astonishing 1982 epic remains one of cinema’s most ambitious (arguably, the most ambitious) undertakings ever to reach the big screen – a truly remarkable feat of logistics, man (cast) management (including hordes of local Aguaruna people) and cinematography (courtesy of Thomas Mauch). But, as well as providing a plethora of spectacular steamboat/river sequences as Herzog’s hero attempts to realise his ambition, Fitzcarraldo also works on a more intimate level, it being another example of the director’s studies of the darker recesses of the human psyche and spirituality – the film bearing comparison, in particular, with the earlier Aguirre, Wrath Of God.
Indeed, Fitzcarraldo’s opening sequence could almost be a continuation of the 1972 film as Kinski’s titular hero paddles his boat (hurriedly) towards camera accompanied by Popol Vuh’s haunting score – in this case, in order to see his own hero, Enrico Caruso, perform in the (‘out of place’) ornate opera house. And, once he has identified the remote, uncharted jungle location 'suitable’ for his plan (to be financed by the local rubber crop) and overcome the naysayers, off sets our determined dreamer on his arduous trek, accompanied by Paul Hittscher’s lone 'trusted adviser’ and captain, Orinoco Paul, plus newly recruited crew. Discomforts soon morph into more serious threats for the expedition as swarming mosquitos, signs of mutiny and hostile natives become the order of the day – and Herzog emphasises the spiritual dimension of local superstitions and curses, again calling to mind Aguirre and the film’s other obvious comparator, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Given Herzog and his star’s notoriously fractious (though highly fruitful) relationship, it may be (almost) understandable that Kinski was not the film-maker’s first choice for this role (footage having been shot with Jason Robards and even Jack Nicholson, at one point, being in the frame), but, watching again the repeated extended close-ups of those staring eyes, it is difficult to imagine anyone else delivering a more compelling depiction of the increasingly manic obsessive. The stunning sequence of local natives pawing at Kinski’s 'white god’ is a particularly mesmerising and 'Kinski-unique’ moment. Visually, as well as the grand spectacular – of which the film’s legendary hauling of the steamboat over a hillside by ropes and pulleys is the most unforgettable – there are also many, more idiosyncratic (typically Herzogian) moments, including those of nature (parrot and ocelot), the iconic image of Fitzcarraldo and gramophone on the boat and the mist-shrouded boat on the side of the hill.
Herzog’s film remains a true epic, in terms of its cinematic scope, level of ambition and compelling central performance.
Keats wrote many Odes, but he didn't write an "Ode to Extravagance," so Werner Herzog wrote one instead, filmed it, and called it "Fitzcarraldo." And that's what the movie's about, and it is, one suspects, in Herzog's mind, what movies in general are about -- and maybe what all art is about too. Opera has been called "the extravagant art," so there's a rightness about this movie's protagonist being an opera enthusiast, a man determined to bring to a rubber-trading town in the middle of the Peruvian jungle an opera house, and Caruso to sing in it. At the end of the movie is a striking scene -- a gathering of townspeople and some indigenous people standing on the bank of a river cheering. Cheering what? An enormous waste of money (which is another meaning of "extravagance").
The film strongly suggests that human beings are perhaps defined as human by their taste for extravagance, and in this movie, that taste is seen as transcending cultural difference. "Why do they help us?" Fitzcarraldo asks his few remaining crew members, unable to fathom why the indigenous people that have followed them upriver (and who have killed and shrunk the heads of earlier intruders) should go to the enormous trouble of getting Fitzcarraldo's 300+ ton boat hauled up a hill, down the other side, and into an adjoining river? The answer is perhaps that they are enchanted by the extravagance of the idea. One could equally well ask the same question about Molly (Claudia Cardinale), the bordello-owner and Fitzcarraldo"s lover, who bankrolls his cockeyed scheme -- and who is on the riverbank cheering like crazy at the end. Exuberance might be beauty, as Blake says, but extravagance on this scale can look like madness, and Klaus Kinski as Fitzcarraldo lets the implication of madness hover over the whole enterprise. That said, the film is finally a comedy -- Fitzcarraldo doesn't get his opera house built, but he gets a performance put on and it's seen quite uncritically as a kind of triumph -- maybe even a triumph of culture over nature, if that isn't pushing the significance a bit far.
Let me mention a couple of other things that struck me, and then offer one caveat: first, and obviously, the scenes of the process of getting the boat over the hill are just riveting. Herzog, famously, actually had a real boat dragged over a hill in the jungle and shot it. That's called walking the walk if you believe in extravagance, and he pulled it off with incredible success. These images are powerful (and the whole film is beautifully shot) and Herzog takes his time over the process -- it's the heart of the movie, after all, and in itself represents an extravagant challenge that Fitzcarraldo seems to embrace almost as an end in itself. The second striking feature is the clarity, in these same central scenes, with which Herzog makes it clear that Fitzcarraldo and his crew have no clue about what the indigenous people are doing. When one of the tribesmen is killed as a result of a failure of the winches, his fellow-tribesmen stand and look at the river for two days, then most of them disappear, their faces pained black -- only to return and go to work again. How their behavior related to the loss of their comrade (and we assume that it is connected) we and Fitzcarraldo never really know. And then, amazingly, there they are at the end, cheering a scene from Bellini's "I Puritani"!
My caveat concerns the historical circumstances under which the rubber trade was carried out in South America at this time -- and the rubber trade is at the heart of the European wealth in the movie that Fitzcarraldo seems to want to spend extravagantly. The indigenous peoples at the time were exploited and very badly treated in other ways by the big, state-supported commercial rubber companies. Sir Roger Casement, the Irish rebel who died for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising, was honored with a knighthood for his diplomatic work, in the course of which he publicized the horrors of the rubber trade where indigenous peoples were concerned. He saw it first hand in The Congo and in Peru. Fitzcarraldo is an Irishman (his name is really Fitzgerald), and clearly he doesn't care about profit for profit's sake, but nor do we get any sense of the exploitation that underwrote the enormous financial successes of the Europeans in the region. So there's a sentimental impulse at work here that occludes a reality of the rubber trade and that can't help but darken one's response to this arresting and adventurous piece of film-making.
on 5 October 2011
If you like the combination of Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog films you will know what to expect. Not quite run of the mill, the feel of friction, good scenes well shot, and 'an I've never seen other films quite like this' feel to it. the plot is a chap sailing a steam ship up a river, then having it dragged over an hill. If you want an unusual evenings entertainment with some classical music added into it, go for it.