"Fitzcarraldo," the latest production from German director Werner Herzog, appears to be an advanced case of directorial self-absorption and self-glorification.
To remain intrigued with this movie you are obliged to go along with the pretense that Herzog's continuing elaboration of a cherished personal myth -- the impossible dreamer, the director attracted to primitive locales and dangerous circumstances in his quest for elusive, visionary images -- is a theme of surpassing interest.
According to Herzog's own testimony, fulsomely documented in a flock of advance articles and in Les Blank's behind-the-scenes film "Burden of Dreams," which was released first and seems certain to last longer, "Fitzcarraldo" was inspired and sustained by the vision of a single overwhelming image of a boat being pulled over a steep jungle mountain. This was "the central metaphor" that would express the theme of the picture.
Ostensibly an adventure, it was supposed to depict an astonishing voyage into the Amazonian wilderness by an ambitious, opera-loving Irish entrepreneur, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, who lived in Iquitos, Peru, in the late 19th century. Known to the locals as Fitzcarraldo, he hopes to exploit untapped forests of rubber trees by sailing up a river in a steamer and transporting the ship across a mountainous isthmus to a parallel river in virgin terrain, above rapids that make access impossible from downstream.
The character formulated by Herzog evidently was a composite of two men with different obsessions, and he never gets them firmly linked up. There was a historical figure who dreamed of building an opera house on the Amazon and having Caruso inaugurate it. There was another figure who extended his holdings as a rubber baron by using Indian porters to transport a dismantled steamer across a jungle isthmus and then reassemble it on the banks of a parallel river. Herzog imagines Fitzcarraldo being inspired by the dream of an opera house to pursue the river exploration, which will make him rich enough to realize the dream.
However, Herzog is such a great one at leaving essential character and story points obscure that it's necessary to obtain the basic information about Fitzcarraldo's motives from sources other than the movie. The movie begins with an episode admirably calculated to illustrate Herzog's ability to confuse things. Fitzcarraldo, portrayed by Herzog's emblematic leading man, Klaus Kinski (who inherited the role after Jason Robards was lost to an attack of amoebic dysentery), accompanied by his mistress, a brothel proprietor named Molly (Claudia Cardinale, looking wonderful), goes to extraordinary lengths to catch the closing scenes of a performance of Verdi's "Ernani" at an opera house in Brazil. Unfortunately, Herzog freaks up the occasion in such a bewildering way, with Caruso singing opposite a female impersonator (Jean-Claude Dreyfuss) who's supposed to represent Sarah Bernhardt, whose singing is being dubbed from the orchestra, that you can't for the life of you see why this experience should inspire anything but hysterics.
Obviously, Herzog himself has no affection for the opera or the performers, or he wouldn't present them in such ridiculous terms. Should one infer an equally contemptuous view of Fitzcarraldo's dream? Not really, because Herzog eventually confuses the hero's intentions with his own artistic aspirations.
Bankrolled by Molly, Fitzcarraldo assembles a crew and takes a giant steamer (evidently five times the size of the ship used by his real-life prototype) up-river for about an hour and half of impressive landscape photography and inept red-herring suspense about the intentions of the natives, who may or may not be hostile and restless. This stretch does have fitful entertainment value, because it's always a kick to find a highbrow director demonstrate an amazing lack of facility at cliche's like the scene of the hero cowing mutinous crew members or the captain observing that it's far too quiet out there -- "There are silences and silences . . . This is the kind I don't like."
When the Indians finally materialize, Herzog deploys them with his characteristic clumsiness. They seem to find Fitzcarraldo's ship an object of worship, an attitude Herzog expects the film audience to emulate. The Indians oblige Fitzcarraldo by clearing the jungle and lugging the ship -- the whole thing in this case rather than a dismantled boat -- from one river to the other. At this point, the documentary emphasis of the footage changes from picturesque riverscapes to grueling images of a labor gang at work. Merely tedious before, "Fitzcarraldo" begins to seem peculiarly hateful and crazed once you see that unwieldy prop stuck in the muck of the chewed-up mountainside.
Here's the "central metaphor" that Herzog spent five arduous years seeking, and the awful truth is that it's a cheated image that has inescapably ugly implications. There's nothing exalting about the thought of a real army of laborers, rather than a monster bulldozer, budging several tons of boat. It's an epic illusion that doesn't work and isn't worth the appalling effort.
Amazingly capricious in artistic defeat, Herzog ends the movie on an upbeat note by suggesting that Fitzcarraldo comes through the ordeal a happy winner. It's conceivable that this playful stroke might have played with someone like Robards in the role, but since Kinski never begins to make sense of the vaguely suggested lighter side of the characterization, you naturally conclude that Herzog is being arbitrary again.
Herzog appears to have a built-in resistance to dramatic amenities. He's fundamentally an abstract, lyric documentarian, and at least half his output has recognized that fact in a formal sense. Theoretically, he's the greatest travel documentarian in contemporary filmmaking.
Herzog and cinematographer Thomas Mauch returned from their earlier Amazonian trek, "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," with some extraordinary sights that also enjoyed an occasional relationship to the story. Their second trek has also produced some privileged scenic moments, but none are essential to the task of storytelling and the image that supposedly justified the quest is an eyesore instead of a Holy Grail of illusions.