Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Herzog/Kinski #4: "Fitzcarraldo"

I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way: Klaus Kinski was a piece of shit. And, as always, I write my articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie I’m writing about...so SPOILERS.

Moving on, this week I’m writing about Fitzcarraldo, which is usually discussed along with the documentary Burden of Dreams. Unfortunately, that documentary is not included in the Herzog/Kinski collection, and I don’t own it separately. I’ve seen it, and I comment about it a bit in the article, but it probably should be included as part of the collection since the behind the scenes stories from this film are so interesting. I’ll get into more in a bit, but I don’t think the behind the scenes stuff is better than the movie, but it does enhance the experience if you know what was going on between shots. Normally, I would say a movie stand on its own, but I think Herzog and Kinski are the exceptions to this, mainly when they worked together. That said, I’m not rewatching Burden of Dreams for this article, but it’s definitely required viewing of any Herzog/Kinski fan.

The behind the scenes story is arguably better than the narrative of the film.

About an hour into Fitzcarraldo, I started to wonder why I claimed to love this movie so much. It’s fine, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nothing special. It’s just Kinski bumbling around trying to make money so he can bring the opera to the jungle. It’s interesting to see Kinski play a happy crazy person, but it’s not that special. Then they decide to haul a boat over a mountain, and I remembered why I loved this film.

When the boat segment gets going, I stop thinking of the movie as fictional and start watching it like it was a documentary. A big reason for this is that I know they actually did this. So what I’m seeing is them actually attempting what is deemed “impossible” in the film. If this was a typical film, and I knew the sequence was done with special effects, then I would find it a little boring. There are lengthy moments of the boat slowly being pulled up the mountain. Without knowing that it’s real, it’s not worth dwelling so long on. But knowing it’s real, the lengthy scenes are justified. Leave it to Herzog to turn a narrative film into a documentary for a bit.

That documentary feeling is extremely beneficial to the viewing experience. I felt detached for the first hour, but after that segment, I was much more involved. It’s truly special when a film can draw you in like that.

From a cinematic standpoint, the image of a boat traveling up a mountain makes for some of the best visuals of Herzog’s non-documentary career. My personal favorite image is Kinski just hanging out in the foreground as a steam ship lumbers up a mountain in the background.

Aside from the boat actually being dragged up a mountain, there is a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes here (why else would this film have its own documentary, like my other favorite jungle movie, Apocalypse Now?). There are a lot of questionable things done to the natives. Overworking them, displacing them, poor living conditions, etc. It taints the viewing process, for sure. Herzog seems the most like his main character with this film: obsessed with accomplishing his goal no matter the means.

On a lighter (yet darker) note, apparently the chief of the natives offered to have Kinski killed. In typical Herzog fashion, he claims he turned down the offer only because he needed Kinski to finish the film. This happened around the time of the dinner scene, in which Kinski looks truly unsure of his safety as the natives surround him. It’s one of my favorite scenes because Kinski didn’t have to act.

The rest of the behind the scenes stuff is pretty amazing. Herzog made nearly half the film with his original stars: Jason Robards and Mick Jagger. Robards got dysentery (something tells me your chances of getting dysentery increase dramatically when you sign on for a Herzog film) and had to return to America, and his doctors would not let him return. Once Kinski signed on, the scheduling forced Jagger to drop out, as well, and his character was completely cut. That’s the kind of thing that would end a film, but Herzog persisted. This film is so interesting because it’s not just about a character trying to do something nearly impossible; it’s also about a director doing the same for a film. It adds together to make a special cinematic experience.

This isn’t to say the movie on its own doesn’t have something to say. The overall story is one of art over money; that there is no price for beauty and even tribes in the Amazon deserve things like the opera. Personally, I love this movie because of all the behind the scenes info, but it’s compelling on its own, as well.

Kinski is...kind of normal and happy? Oh, only onscreen. That makes sense.

I already mentioned that the chief of the tribe offered to have Kinski killed, so his typical behavior was going on between takes. That’s expected at this point. His character on screen, however, is different than usual.

Sure, Fitzcarraldo is crazy. He keeps making terrible business decisions in an attempt to raise money to build an opera house in the jungle. That’s his end goal. And he goes to extremes to try and accomplish it, putting his own life, and the lives of many others, on the line. And people do die in the process. Is opera in the jungle that important?

But unlike Aguirre, who is pretty much a psycho from start to finish, Fitzcarraldo begins relatively happy. He’s disappointed in his efforts, but overall he’s upbeat. And even when his obsession gets the best of him, he seems more jubilant than crazy, and he never seems evil. In fact, nearly the only time you see him angry is when he has to deal with the rich rubber barons who seem to control everything. But he doesn’t kill any of them or anything.

Perhaps the biggest difference with this character is that things sort of work out for him the end. Seeing Kinski happy is refreshing...and off-putting. But despite all the baggage that comes with a Kinski performance, I was still happy for the crazy bastard in the end.

Would I own this if it wasn’t part of the collection?

Yes. And I wish I had it on blu ray instead of DVD, but I’ll likely settle for this version. I do wish Burden of Dreams was included. I’m not going to buy it, but I’ll find a way to watch that again. And I believe I’ll revisit Fitzcarraldo in the future, too.

Random Thoughts

And we're five minutes in and a horse is being fed champagne.

Kinski's hair in this is its own character.

Conquistador of the Useless. What is the point of it all. Ice in the jungle. Opera in the jungle. Money in the jungle. Beauty is all that matters.

I love the painting of Kinski and Cardinale.

Aguirre might still be my favorite…I’m not sure yet. I’ll settle it by the time I’m done with the set.

Pretty sure Deep Roy modeled his performance in Eastbound & Down on Huerequeque.

Accused of exploiting natives...I can see it.

His insanity is contagious.

“Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” (One of Kinski's lines about halfway through) Could be an alternate title.

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