Exploitation Retrospect | The Journal of Junk Culture and Fringe Media
Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Warner Bros. Home Video | Review by Dan Taylor

Based on the true story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, Werner Herzog's FITZCARRALDO is a remarkable film... but not because it's an example of truly successful filmmaking. No, this film is remarkable for one reason, and one reason only... what the director attempted and accomplished while filming.

Now maybe I'm giving you the wrong impression when I use a word like "remarkable." I guess that word gives off a positive notion. No, what Herzog attempts and accomplishes in FITZCARRALDO is the very antithesis of what I believe about cinema. Instead of making entertainment for the masses, or even entertainment for a small core of viewers who will take hold of the film and keep it as a personal prize, Herzog has gone and created a film simply for himself – a film for the sake of film.

The real Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald was a wealthy Irishman who made his fortune by figuring out how to ship rubber over a previously insurmountable piece of land. He realized that a riverboat could be disassembled, carried over land from one part of the Amazon to another, and then put back together. Indeed, this is a brilliant solution to an incredible task, and Fitcarrald (as the natives called him) made a fortune from it.

Herzog, however, was not satisfied with this story, and instead blew his film up into epic proportions. Instead of merely mimicking the task performed by the real man, the director instead had the cast haul a three-hundred-and-twenty-ton steamboat up a mountain on a grade two times as steep as that of Fitzcarraldo's crew. Oh, by the way, did I happen to mention that the boat was INTACT! This works out to be ten times the size and weight of the real-life task.

This is not filmmaking, this is, as screenwriter Ron Oliver would call it, "wanking." Cinematic masturbation. Pure and simple. When critic Pauline Kael says, "He [Herzog] thinks he's producing art because he turns the making of a film into such a miserable, difficult struggle for all concerned," one can almost see Klaus Kinski saying the same thing. Only with more expletives.

Oh wait! I knew I was forgetting something... Kinski. Yes, K2 plays the title character here, and one wonders if the real man possessed the same maniacal and insane personality that the actor infuses him with. In the opening scene, Fitzcarraldo and his "girlfriend" have rowed for two days and nights down the Amazon in order to see the great Enrico Caruso perform. As the two talk their way into the sold out performance, we catch a glimpse of the manic energy that K2 is able to bring to a role. His passion is there, the rage, the just barely controlled frenzy. Too bad that this is one of the few instances where Kinski really shines through. During the rest of the film, he walks around, orange/yellow hair thrust in all directions like a maniacal Tommy Stinson, rolling his big eyes at the camera and mugging at every chance he gets.

This is too bad, since the story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald could have been made into a great film, instead of the egomaniacal spectacle that Herzog foists on the public.

When Fitzcarraldo says, "I am the spectacle in the jungle," he ain't kiddin'.

NOTE: An in depth and scathing review of this film can be read in the Pauline Kael book, Taking it All In.

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