Fitzcarraldo is nothing less than a herculean achievement in filmmaking. Directed with a serious sense of epic scope yet still with a fine eye for intimate detail by the masterful and eclectic storyteller Werner Herzog, who seems to be attracted to madness in all of its permutations, in the way that a fly is a attracted to animal droppings. Surreal, grand, in love with itself and the very idea of cinema, Fitzcarraldo is one of a few masterpieces for this most eccentric filmmaker, and stands as one of the true awe-inspiring feats that the medium has known. Just thinking about the nuts and bolts logistics of this film gives me a headache, and it goes without saying that a production such as this one would never, ever get attempted in this CGI-infested day and age. The very lack of artifice is what gets me about this movie; it feels as organic as it could possibly get, with the exotic surroundings producing an earthy sense of time and place. Released in 1982, Herzog’s wild narrative centers around an obsessive entrepreneur with dreams of becoming a rubber baron, a role inhabited by the director’s spiritual cousin Klaus Kinski, in a maniacal and wholly committed performance of intense bravado. Already reeling from previous business failures and prone to very large ideas, he becomes overwhelmed with a crushing desire to spread the sounds of big opera all throughout the Peruvian jungle; his dream of a massive opera house nestled in the middle of indigenous territory must be met.
He enlists hordes of natives to help him lug a massive steamship over the steepest of hills in the middle of the Amazon, seemingly unafraid of the various dangers that could cause calamitous ruin. The film is an adventure, a romance, a study of dogged determination, and a sly portrait of the exploitation of human beings for one individual’s personal gain and existential triumph. Based on events surrounding the life of Carlos Fitzcarrald, Herzog was wise to root his story in something tangible, but he never became slavish to history, as so much of the movie feels like in the inner-workings of Herzog’s unhinged and esoteric mind, totally unleashed and splashed all over the screen. The gorgeous Claudia Cardinale was fantastic in the role of Kinski’s adventurous companion and lover, a brothel owner with smart business sense, bringing warmth and heart to an already passionate story that feels as lived-in as a movie could ever possibly feel. Thomas Mauch’s can’t-believe-your-eyes cinematography conjures up one spectacular image after another, filling the frame with vibrant color and a strict sense of unfettered naturalism. Mauch also collaborated with Herzog on the magisterial Aguirre, The Wrath of God and early charmer Even Dwarfs Started Small, and clearly the two men had a superb working relationship, more than likely consisting of some sort of artistic shorthand as their partnerships are some of the most ever-lasting in Herzog’s overwhelmingly amazing filmography. Iquitos POWER. I literally feel this movie in my bones every single day. Enrico Caruso POWER.