July 13th, 2008


Fitzcarroldo is the one about the Irish opera buff who hauls a steamship over a mountain in the middle of the Amazonian jungle. Klaus Kinski plays the loony- as usual- but this time he's a likeable loony not a hateful one. Herzog refused to fake anything. That's a real steamship being winched up the hillside and getting battered about in the rapids.  Here- as in much of Herzog- the legend of the film's creation feeds into the images on screen. It helps that Kinski really was a loony, that he and Herzog were both a little careless with firearms, that Herzog is even more of an obsessive than the subject of his film. But if we didn't know the off-screen story, if we believed  the effects had been contrived by Industrial Light and Magic, would we really be so much in awe of it? 

There are wonderful moments: Kinski silencing a jungle full of drums by broadcasting Caruso through his big-horned gramophone, the first apparition of the massed canoes in the river, the Indians gliding like ghosts about the ship or sitting in massed ranks to watch the four white men eat dinner.  Yes, this is a great movie- in parts. But the footage of the ship going up the hill isn't all that spectacular, really;  David Lean would have framed it better; so would many others. And after all that staring into the heart of darkness the ironic ending is abrupt and trite.  There are ragged edges too-  the lip-sync is abominable- and it's obvious that by the time they came to shoot the final scenes Claudia Cardinale had long since schlepped off back to Europe- sensible girl- and her presence had to be patched in from what was already in the can. 

These days Herzog mostly makes documentaries. And that's essentially what this is too. It's a documentary about a situation contrived by its director.  The wonder is that no-one was killed.