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Film Review: Fitzcarraldo

Fitzcarraldo (1982; Directed by Werner Herzog)

Werner Herzog’s second iconic jungle-bound epic (the first being the unforgettably bugnuts Aguirre, the Wrath of God) is a great film, and not merely for the astounding feat of engineering that was filmed for its climax. The famous scenes of the steamship being hauled laboriously and dramatically over the mountain ridge make for some of the finest pure cinema you will ever see, I can guarantee it. Nor is it merely great for its star Klaus Kinski’s performance as the wild-eyed, white-suited wannabe rubber baron who drives the mad venture in the first place. If acting is so often an art form defined by acts of moderation, then for Kinski that moderation is of the inherent instability that he can’t help but embody. His art is to parcel out insanity in effective doses, to release the kookiness in controlled bursts. This instinct, I think, is what made Kinski and Herzog such a dynamic match in the primes of their careers.

It might make sense to lower the cost of the ferry pass a smidgeon now…

But more than this, on a deeper level Fitzcarraldo‘s true impact derives from its talismanic expression of colonialism’s bizarre madness and excess, the inherent, unnatural eccentricity of Fitzcarraldo’s project standing in for the similar qualities of the colonial project, or rather parcelling out those qualities in an effective dose. Herzog, in accomplishing the fiendishly challenging overland portage that is the film’s claim to fame, dubbed himself “Conquistador of the Useless”. This equation of tremendous resources marshalled to dubious purposes, of overwhelming power and influence turned towards pointless pursuits, is shared by Fitzcarraldo the film product, and it is an inspired satire of European imperialism in the New World as a result.

But the film is hardly a one-sided outrage party when it comes to colonialism, either. The gnomic role of the natives who mutely assist Fitzcarraldo in the massive portage adds an element of unsettling ambiguity to the proceedings. To what extent, in both Herzog’s myth of colonialism and in the real thing itself, did the belief-systems and cultural customs of indigenous peoples enable their exploitation? Equivalently, how did those beliefs work to preserve some slice of their cultural uniqueness and essential social character?

The academic questions raised by Fitzcarraldo aside, this is an often astounding epic film, cinema at its purest and most effective. A real spectacle with a brain in its head, albeit a brain that may be a little damaged.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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