Oh, the genius in madness. Such a statement can be said about “Fitzcarraldo” the movie, Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski) the character, or the director, Werner Herzog, himself.
“Fitzcarraldo” is about a man with an obsessive love of opera, specially the tenor Enrico Caruso; here is a man who traveled 1,200 miles through the jungle in two days just to hear the Great Caruso sing for five minutes. And out of this obsession comes a need to share, to educate the plebeians, to make them love as he loves. His plan: Build an opera palace in the heart of the jungle, a setting so perfect that Caruso will have to attend.
But first, our hero needs money to fulfill his dream; after a failed bid at building a trans-Andean railroad, Fitzcarraldo embarks on a surefire way to make money in the late 19th century: Rubber plantations.
Soon everything starts to line up for Fitzcarraldo; with the help of his girlfriend and a fellow rubber baron, he buys a rundown steamer and fixes her up, claims some land to cultivate, finds a crew of natives and away he goes.
And here’s where you see how far this man (and director) is willing to let his dream rule him; he takes his reluctant crew into a territory known for hostile natives who don’t like to leave survivors. Despite his crew’s protests (and eventual desertion), he plows on, ignoring good sense because he lives for a higher purpose, to bring his soul’s song to the jungle’s heart.
And on this river journey, another’s madness becomes apparent; Herzog, our eminent auteur. After a quick background search on the making of the film (also documented in “Burden of Dreams” (1982)), you have to wonder what studio head approved this film (and why wasn’t he/she fired?). After some casting choices didn’t work out, and after 40% of the film was shot, Herzog scrapped the footage and started from scratch with Kinski, another mad genius, as his lead.
And this is also a man whose script called for a steamboat to be dragged over a mountain, and insisted on dragging a real steamboat over a real mountain. When you watch the scene, remember that you’re seeing the real deal, how a mad passion can drive madmen to greatness and to folly.
For all his passion and drive, Fitzcarraldo is a man who has known nothing but failure, and without giving too much away, will know joy but will never know triumph. He dreams too big for mere mortals. Fortunately, he has Herzog to show the world he meant well.
Oh “Fitzcarraldo,” what genius; what madness.
Written and Directed by Werner Herzog
Klaus Kinski (Fitzcarraldo)