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One must marvel, sometimes, about what creative impulse can do to people. The stronger a person's energy, the greater their creative impulse; and the greater their creative impulse, the greater is its simultaneously destructive potential. How many lives were lost building the Great Wall of China, or The Pyramids of Giza! How great was the environmental impact of building The Hoover Dam!
And when it comes to Hollywood, there have been a few films that nearly cost actors their lives and directors their sanity. The main example that comes to mind is Apocalypse Now, a tremendous creative act of Francis Ford Coppola that nearly drove him, and everyone involved in the film, crazy. When delving into a work of scope and soul, an artist can run into those enormous human issues that beat the spirit into a pulp and spit out, one hopes, both a wiser artist, and a truly amazing work for others to experience.
Which brings me to Fitzcarraldo, an epic tale five years in the making directed by Werner Herzog, and starring the intense-looking Klaus Kinski supported by the lovely Claudia Cardinale.
Ostensibly, a historical fiction set in the early 20th century, it's the tale of Fitzgerald, a German-speaking Irishman (this wasn't too clear) whose name is mispronounced by the natives as the film's title. Fitzcarraldo and his peers are the wealthy industrialists of Europe who have conquered and subdivided Amazonian Brazil and made their jaw-dropping fortunes creating The Rubber Industry. Obnoxious fat-cats all, they scoff at the slightly mad Fitz whose goal is not so much to become insanely wealthy as to become just wealthy enough to build and establish an opera house in the rubber-industry town where he lives. Enrico Caruso will perform on opening night.
This is the dream. To get the money, Fitzgerald tries to patent ice, or at least corner the ice-manufacturing market in this small but booming Brazilian town. He is backed by the lovely Claudia who plays a very attractive brothel matron with an irrationally tender crush on the wild-eyed Kinski. They make a strange couple, but their pairing is no more surreal than the rest of the piece.
Fitz finally figures out that he must stake a claim in the jungle and start his own rubber business. It's the only way to make the fortune that will buy the opera house that will bring Caruso. But the early-bird magnates have already parsed the jungle. All except a small patch inaccessible by water. The one river that leads past it is fraught with impassable rapids. But Fitz, in a fit of mad-genius finds a spot on the map where a nearby river comes close to the spot. He decides to buy a steam-ship, move upstream against the Amazon, take this tributary toward his claim, and then, somehow, move the boat overland to the river where he wants to start his rubber business.
Crazy? It's nearly impossible to explain: that's how crazy it is. And yet, he manages to do it, with a Caruso record blaring from the top deck. And since this isn't a Hollywood picture, he manages to undergo a series of humblings from which he is barely able to wrench a silver-lined ending.
Fictional yes, but allegorial. Fitzcarraldo is a simulacrum for Herzog: their undertakings are equally unlikely, dangerous, and costly. For Herzog had to literally drag a boat across a mountain in order to portray the thinly fictional Fitzgerald doing the same. Both director and character are flung surprise after surprise by the deep unknown. Fitzgerald is set upon by headhunting natives that become tentative allies. Herzog is plagued by rainstorms, heatwaves, insects, and all the terror the Amazon has to offer. Fitgerald loses his ship's crew to fighting, drunkenness, and desertion. Herzog looses actors and crew to sickness, desertion and even death.
And in the end, Fitzcarraldo manages to have his opera, albeit outdoors. And Herzog has his film, though it has cost him five years, all his money and more, and a sizeable chunk of mind.
Mrs. Worsted filled me in on some of these details, having seen the documentary
about this film's making. She said that when Herzog first reached Brazil,
he thought it was paradise. Indeed, the film opens with a quote about how
the natives refer to the place as the land that God never completed. It
is indeed frightening in its unspoiled beauty. But by the time this film
was over, Herzog was convinced the place was Hell on earth. Joseph Conrad's
Heart of Darkness came to mind several times as I watched
this gripping epic.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.