“It is only the dreamers who move mountains.”
So says Molly (a fine Claudia Cardinale) in Werner Herzog's feverishly rapturous Fitzcarraldo, a more benign essaying of the deportment of insane obsession than, for instance, arguably his most famous work, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a film so berserk the celluloid seems riddled with madness. Molly knows Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), and she knows that he's a dreamer, a man lost in his own thoughts and self-imposed quests. His is a naïve fixation, forged by his undying love of opera, and his greatest hero, opera singer Enrico Caruso. The details are almost immaterial, even when they allow for a scene as wondrously touching as Fitzgerald correcting Don Aquilino about “The Puritans” belonging to the Italian Vincenzo Bellini, not the German Richard Wagner. The matter is less the object than the trajectory.
At at the age of nineteen, Herzog precociously shot a short film entitled Herakles (1962), which was an exercise in editing. Herzog synchronized two parallel stories, creating an indelible juxtaposition: footage of preening bodybuilders and the famous racing accident at Le Mans. As Paul Cronin's Herzog on Herzog notes on page two, the great German filmmaker vehemently considers the strongman an individual endowed with “intellectual strength, independence of mind, confidence, self-reliance...” In what seems to be the budding philosophical statement of the wild man of cinema, impressive physicality lends itself to righteous destruction. Fitzgerald is another pious destroyer, a man not physically imposing, as Kinski's Aguirre was in Aguirre, the Wrath of God—the corporeal violence representing intellectual and cultural imperialism, Aguirre looked larger than life because he was, in his own demented mind. That film displayed the process of entropy: the colonizers are swallowed whole by their New World. Fitzcarraldo presents a more shaded, mercurial relationship, concomitant scenarios made wholly congruous by the time in which the film is set (the age of Sarah Bernhardt, Wagner and Bellini, not Conquistadors wandering about the treacherous forest).
Fitzgerald has had dreams before. One was to have a trans-Andean railroad unite the continent of South America. That dream has concluded unhappily. At the time of the film's beginning, he is wasting away, making some money from an ice factory while Molly works as the madam of a brothel. Fitzgerald blithely sits about, looking skyward, dreaming of the impossible. Finally he envisions his greatest future triumph, the engendering of an opera house in the middle of the jungle. Surely the great Caruso would sing at Fitzgerald's opera house. Fitzgerald becomes crazily consumed by a map that shows two rivers separated by a thin branch of land. Heedlessly believing every last detail of his plan to be entirely practical, Fitzgerald decides the best method is to support his endeavor is to introduce a steamship in the river system. After docking the steamship, it must be carried up the mountain, and brought downward to the other river, whereat a thriving system of trade could develop. While this is a less nakedly virulent picture than Aguirre, its subtext is fruitfully laid down by Herzog, much like many trees that are downed for the sake of Fitzgerald's ultimate dream. The historical Fitzgerald reportedly disassembled his boat to be carried up the mountain, but Herzog's Fitzgerald is lacking in all restraint. He has a team of engineers devise an elaborate system of blocks-and-pulleys to literally pull the entire steamship upwards and downwards. Herzog films this entire act of hubristic senselessness in a series of phantasmagorically cinematic shots. One such unforgettable shot places Kinski's Fitzgerald in the close foreground, his pale, almost ghostly countenance jeweled by his piercing cerulean eyes as hypnotically mesmerizing as the steamship rests diagonally against the hillside off in the distance behind him. In this searingly surrealistic shot, it is man who has tamed not just nature or time—or even asked about their meaning and significance, as in the work of Heidegger—but his own constructions of power. Man becomes singularly victorious, at least fleetingly. Aguirre deprived the pernicious human monsters of such transiently ephemeral contentedness, as their collective obsession, and Aguirre's particular craving, was finally unattainable in the environment in which they had traversed. Inspired by gold, theirs was a pitiful, cannibalistic misadventure. Fitzgerald's insouciantly deranged methodology is in service of a higher ideal. Another shot of haunting power is of the steamship, named “Molly Aida” for the woman who loves and understands Fitzgerald, sitting, eerily, in the shrouding fog. Briefly, man's creation, his triumph, is overwhelmed by nature. The struggle does not cease.
Thomas Mauch's cinematography is naturally sumptuous, evocatively complementing the resplendent beauty of the setting. It descries a sempiternal portrait of this area of the world. Herzog's conception of nature reaches beyond the merely prosaic and academic: there is a certain Platonism beneath the surface, illustrating each organism with a luscious universality that is nothing less than stirring. Fitzgerald is perhaps no less blinded to the majestic tranquility to be found all around him than Aguirre was. Kinski's performances are volcanic in each case, but with Fitzgerald he finds a dazzling array of vying temperamental palpitations, self-contradictorily thriving within the body, mind and soul of one man. It is a performance of astonishing intricacy, and provides the film's most persistently riveting appanage, directed with almost shocking sincerity and inquisitiveness by Herzog.
Fitzcarraldo is 157 minutes long, and it moves with the driftingly peripatetic poetry for which Herzog should be commended. The prolonged journey results in a fiercely provocative destination, one rooted not solely in the Heidegger- and nominal Taoist-inspired quandaries and concerns, but in the simple appreciation of natural wonder. Herzog's contribution to the New German Cinema is incalculable, but the parallel fastidiousness that marks the worlds he created with unerringly mirrored fastidiousness—in the uttermost reaches of his inward self-discovery, worked out through his wallowing in the madness of his characters reverberated from himself, the art of filmmaking finds expression through subject matter and, symbiotically, vice versa—is a unique gift of nearly unequaled proportions. Every director in Herzog's wake who has succumbed to the fury of their own beast, and combated the trials and tribulations of their calamitous productions, can find as their inspiration this director. When Francis Ford Coppola began the highly problematic shooting of Apocalypse Now, he personally asked Herzog for permission to use Herzog's methods of shooting for Aguirre.
Improperly classified, as he should not be, his art nevertheless is ripe for certain categorization. Deeply Wagnerian, his cinema would recurrently simultaneously strip the conceit of man from his being while throwing him in the untamed ferocity of an anciently parlous world, more metaphysically dangerous in myriad forms than in its more limited somatic frights. Fitzcarraldo and later Invincible (2001) would threaten to blatantly expose the sentiment and panorama, delving more frontally into the literally operatic throes of ethereal devastation. Nevertheless, Herzog's art, whether circuitously formulated or straightforwardly rendered, is always of an absolute unquestioning import. Consuming four years, the making of this picture was an arduous task of Sisyphean proportions, finding greater connection between the drama and the reality than ever before or since. Opera, in its heightened reality, seamlessly communicates the perpetually polyphonic earthly contest, intensely annunciating the stakes of Herzog's cinema. Those stakes predate him, and everyone, to back when the earth was formless and void.