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« A Suspension of Mercy | Main | Verlaine, "J'allais par des chemins perfides" »


At almost precisely the halfway point of this film, the crew of the Molly Aida espies a small black object floating down the Pachitea (an Amazon tributary) towards their large white vessel. It is revealed to be an umbrella, the only remnant of an extremely ill–fated mission to the Jivaros tribe, and, one would think, a logical appurtenance to take into a rain forest. The first mate of the ship, knowing the ways of these "bare-asses" (as they are referred to the entire film), selects for his carry-on luggage a much more appropriate invention from that most civilized of Europeans. Perhaps because he understands that, ultimately, mother nature will be the least of the expedition's obstacles.
Although the titular character (Klaus Kinski) insists that his name is a lazy indigenization of "Fitzgerald," the story is remotely based on that of a real rubber baron, a ship, waves of overtaxed natives, and a mountain (even Cortés himself is said to have tried such a stunt). His predecessor had the good sense, however, to dismantle the craft before obliging the local tribesmen to do his dirty work. But Fitzcarraldo has no such sense, nor is he really a rubber baron at heart. His passion is and always will be opera, specifically Verdi and more specifically Caruso (whom he travels hours to hear in the opening scene). By becoming rich off the last unclaimed rubber parcel in the region, Fitzcarraldo hopes to build an opera house that will attract the greatest voices from around the world. Yet there are, one might imagine, some very good reasons why that parcel has remained unclaimed. One reason are the Jivaros, plague-ridden for over a decade and insular since the dawn of time. We are told with the opening credits that they await the advent of an alleged messiah, a "great white God." A second is the parcel's location, between two rivers and rapids such as those that actually swallowed up Fitzcarraldo's namesake. The only way around is, well, over a mountain.
The allegorical Ahabian elements are certainly present, Herzog does recycle some stock characters (the brooding and mysterious first mate, the drunk and carefree cook, the captain constantly warning Fitzcarraldo of his impetuous folly), and the Molly Aida (Molly is Mrs. Fitzgerald, and thankfully for her, not along for the ride) is a "great white vessel," a bit bigger than a whale, but still comparable. Yet for all his monomania, Fitzcarraldo's quest is the benevolent pursuit of an aesthete. The only things whiter than his ship and his suit are his teeth. When the cook, who is also the interpreter, tells him that, "they know we are not gods," Fitzcarraldo is more worried about his opera house than his own stature. His hubris has a good end in mind, and maybe that will entice the gods to spare him the disasterous fate that should rightly befall such a ridiculous venture.  
Much has been made of the difficulty of filming Fitzcarraldo, and, like it or not, both Herzog and Kinski are shackled together in eternal infamy for their parts. That the two Germans overcame their differences and the easy critique of colonialism to make it into, at times, an amazing artistic achievement, speaks volumes about the film's vision, inevitably ratcheted down into the movie poster of Fitzcarraldo pointing at the ship as it heads uphill. But scenes such as the natives' first contact with ice (for which, the cook says, they have no word) really make the film: after holding then sniffing this fantastic object for a while, the puzzled chieftain turns to his people triumphantly. He is on a deck three stories above them and that much closer to these gifts from heaven.    

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