Fitzcarraldo review, Fitzcarraldo DVD review
Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, José Lewgoy, Miguel Ángel Fuentes, Paul Hittscher, Huerequeque Bohorquez
Werner Herzog

Reviewed by Bob Westal



ometimes, the legend of how a movie was made tends to overwhelm the actual film itself. Such is the case of “Fitzcarraldo,” hailed by many as one of director Werner Herzog’s best films. The story of its near-disastrous making became legend, due to a now-classic documentary by Les Blank, “Burden of Dreams,” helped along somewhat by controversies about the film’s use of South American natives as extras and onset workers, and the outsize personalities of director Herzog and star Klaus Kinski.

“Fitzcarraldo” stars Kinski as a turn of the 20th century dreamer with a penchant for the song stylings of Enrico Caruso, and the need to bring live opera to a remote Peruvian outpost, to build an opera house there. To do this, he needs money, lots of money. So, enlisting the aid of his wealthy madam girlfriend (Claudia Cardinale), he decides to cash in on the rubber mania gripping the Amazon region. He buys a boat and sets out in pursuit of rubber trees. When he finds that getting to those trees via boat is blocked by a mile or so of land, he comes up with an unlikely solution: dragging the entire boat up and down a large hill with the aid of a winch and lots of man power. Persuading the area natives to help turns out to be relatively easy -- but why?

Herzog’s style of filmmaking relies very much on visuals and mood, and he is undoubtedly a master in both areas, but for me “Fitzcarraldo” fails on a strictly dramatic level, despite outstanding performances and some lovely and evocative set-pieces. Re-watching this movie after being unimpressed by it many years ago, I still find this 150-minute film an arduous struggle to watch. Newcomers to the works of Werner Herzog are referred to his (much shorter) classic, “Aquirre: The Wrath of God” and his outstanding recent documentary, “Grizzly Man.”

Though many love this film, I can’t help but miss the “Fitzcaraldo” that never got made. As the dramatic tale of the film’s making has it, original star Jason Robards was felled by a severe illness. This caused a delay, forcing the film’s other original star, Mick Jagger, to leave the project as well, because of his commitments to the Rolling Stones. Deciding that Jagger couldn’t be replaced, Herzog wrote out his somewhat comical character, and replaced the avuncular presence of Robards with the spiky-lunacy of the notoriously difficult Klaus Kinski. Kinski and Herzog had a notoriously rocky relationship which became the subject of its own Herzog film, “My Best Fiend.” (Herzog actually shot his film in English, but for “cultural” reasons he recommends you watch the subtitled German version. Herzog may be right; the extensive use of European-style dubbing is pretty obvious on the English soundtrack.) I can’t help but wonder if the decision to write out the sidekick, replacing comedy and friendship with more internal sturm und drang, is the decision that — in my case anyway — renders Herzog’s film so unapproachable.

Single-Disc DVD Review:

This Anchor Bay DVD offers outstanding picture quality — all the better to observe those astonishing Andean vistas — but little else, aside from a commentary. Fortunately, it’s more than enough. Werner Herzog, who has recently branched out into acting in movies like “The Grand,” is one of the most fascinating characters in the world of filmmaking and one of its best raconteurs. The commentary, o featuring Herzog’s producer and brother, Lucki Stipetic, also offers the kind of intense drama and inspiration that, for me, the actual film lacks.

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