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Fitzcarraldo (1982): A Boy and His Boat

Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog, 1982)

[originally posted 1Feb2002]

Klaus Kinski, with a frantic look, stares out of the movie poster, while in the background, his boat is slowly hauled up a mountain.

If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed…
photo credit: Wikipedia

Fitzcarraldo is the fourth, chronologically, of the five celebrated films upon which Werner Herzog collaborated with Klaus Kinski, and it is certainly the best of the lot. Herzog and Kinski both bring their A game to the table in the creation of the title character, a man obsessed with building an opera house in the Amazon rainforest. In order to raise enough capital for the project, he and his financial backers attempt to crack an untapped rubber market on a tributary of the Amazon by creating a land-bridge between two tributaries over which a large steamship can be hauled.

Fitzcarraldo and his gramophone survey the river in a still from the film.

Few things can drive a man mad like round-the-clock exposure to opera.
photo credit:

The bulk of the almost-three-hour film concerns the building of the land-bridge, with framing pieces on either side. The whole presents an excellent character analysis of Fitz (Kinski) himself, a happy-go-lucky entrepreneur who also happens to be obsessed. Fitz comes off as the ultimate film character, a man as fully realized and as fully explored as any constructed for the cinema before or since. And therein lies the film’s strength.

A band of native tribesmen haul the boat up a hill in a still from the film.

The boat begins its perilous ascent.
photo credit:

The film’s weaknesses aren’t enough to balance, but they are certainly in evidence. The pace of the film is slow, to say the least, almost glacial in places. Herzog is a little too good at taking half an hour to make a minor point that could have been carried off in five minutes, and he does it once or twice too often here. There’s also something to be said for the inconsistency of the natives; they rush off, as if they are never to return, and then the next morning are back to work as if nothing had happened. It’s a great trick when used once, but it gets old fast. It also seems as if Herzog may have tacked the ending on after some unfavorable test-marketing, but it’s impossible to say how without spoiling the last half-hour of the film. It’ll be obvious once you’ve watched it.

As I said before, the bad points aren’t nearly enough to drag the film down. Kinski gives the performance of his career, and it alone is enough to warrant watching the film. ****


About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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