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.