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"Fitzcarraldo" Film Review

Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interests are science fiction and zombie movies. I also enjoy pessimistic and survival films a lot.


Halfway through Fitzcarraldo, there is an apparent casual piece of dialogue that, when detailed, reveals the heart of this story and, in general, of this phenomenon created by German filmmaker Werner Herzog.

Brian Sweeney “Fitzcarraldo” Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), an Irish opera lover who lives in Iquitos, Peru, at the beginning of the 20th century, is talking with two missionaries (Salvador Godínez and Dieter Milz) about their work “modernizing” indigenous people of the region.

Young Missionary: - The children already feel like little Peruvians. The other day I asked them, "Are you Indians?" "No," they said, "not we, the ones up the river, they are Indians." And then I asked. "What are Indians?" "They said to me "Indians are people who can't read and who don't know how to wash their clothes."

Fitzcarraldo: - And what about the older people?

Old Missionary: - Well, we can't seem to cure them of the idea that our everyday life is only an illusion, behind which lies the reality of dreams.


The dialogue goes under the table because of its casual context, quick delivery, and because, in general, many of the things that happen in Fitzcarraldo flirt with magical realism. But at a second glance, this piece of dialogue hides the cruelest motif in the film: The colonial arrogance of the white man wanting to impose his version of culture and lifestyle.

Let's provide a bit of context. In principle, we never understand what Fizcarraldo is really doing in Iquitos, as he does not seem to have any job or an outstanding talent. In fact, although he evidently feels part of the foreign high class in Iquitos, Fitzcarraldo is not really accepted by his peers.

What we do know is that thanks to the rubber boom, the small Peruvian town is on its way to becoming a little more modern city. That, combined with Fitzcarraldo's obsession with tenor opera singer Enrique Caruso and the financial support of his love partner Molly (Claudia Cardinale), who owns a brothel, is what spawns his plan to make his mark on the world: he will venture into a remote sector with difficult to access of an Amazon River to collect precious rubber, obtain many riches and build an opera house in Iquitos, where Caruso himself will delight the town.

For that, he acquires an old steamship, remodels it (or well, pays some indigenous workers to do so), and sets sail with a small crew to navigate the Pachitea River and, from there, see how to connect with the Ucayali River, which he can't access directly due to an extensive section of rapids.


The other big problem that Fitzcarraldo faces is an indigenous group that has not bowed to the modernity of foreigners. They even have a hostile attitude towards trespassers.

And that's where the revealing piece of dialogue comes from. Fitzcarraldo, like some kind of 20th century Columbus or Hernán Cortes, is looking for "weak points" in the minds of the indigenous people so he can take advantage of them.

He actually says that. Later, when cook/interpreter Huerequeque (Huerequeque Enrique Bohórquez) tells him that for ten generations, these Jivaro people have been wandering through the jungle looking for a white God in a sacred boat,” Fitzcarraldo responds with a cold, we are gonna take advantage of this."

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After that scene, Fitzcarraldo's intentionality should be clear. This is a movie about cruel cultural colonialism. Fitzcarraldo not only manages to conquer the good graces and curiosity of the local indigenous people, but also manages to convince them to work (for free!) hard hours (with fatal victims in the process), to move the steamship from one river to another, through a small piece of land, using an exploitative process of brute force, levers, and pulleys.

It should be clear, but it's not.


The film becomes a kind of odyssey in which, even with its eccentricities and clear abuses, the viewer ends up kinda respecting Fitzcarraldo's tenacity to give more "beauty" to the world.

It's a trap. We don't know if intentional or not. It doesn't matter. The fact is that Fitzcarraldo has convinced us that he is doing everything for an ambitious love of art. Not for nothing, the scene when we see him on top of the remodeled steamship, dressed completely in white, blasting Caruso on his gramophone to attract the curiosity of the indigenous people, is considered iconic.

And, of course, it also works as an analogy of filmmaking, which is obviously very tempting and difficult to reject by a large segment of the cinephile audience, who precisely love the technical process of making a movie.

The truth is, we should lower Fitzcarraldo from the pedestal it's on. Technically, it's an interesting film, with obvious masters at its helm. But the problem is that the filmmaking analogy didn't stop at the romantic realm. As expected, the motif came true in the production of the film. Herzog became the Fitzcarraldo of the late 20th century.

Herzog shot his film on a river in the Peruvian Amazon. He also convinced almost a thousand indigenous people to work as laborers and extras for a miserable salary. They lived in crowded, terrible conditions to appear in this film. Herzog made decisions without consulting locals (a big no-no). His film caused several deaths and accidents among the poor exploited indigenous people. Kinski, as always, was a royal capricious pain that provoked the anger and indignation of them all.

The real-life Aguaruna tribe ended up burning down a film set that had been built without their authorization. When filming ended, the ship was simply abandoned in the jungle.

In short, it was a hellish experience where only the white artists came out winning. Herzog and Kinski came out stronger as artists. In contrast, we don't even know the names of the fatal victims of the production.

In the end, it wasn't worth it. As talented as Herzog and Kinski are (and boy, nobody could say otherwise), the world didn't need another reminder of colonial-tinged white arrogance. Much less one that had to fall into precisely the same vices of an exploitative white artist to do so.

It's easy to be seduced by Fitzcarraldo's final message. After failing in his attempt to exploit the untamed zone, Fitzcarraldo must return to Iquitos with nothing to show. However, he makes one last move. With the money received from the sale of the steamship, Fitzcarraldo stages an opera production on the steamship (before finally delivering it) with a cast that includes Caruso himself. The city of Iquitos gathers on the river bank to enjoy the concert. Fitzcarraldo smiles proudly: he has adapted his ambition to his possibilities and in the process, managed to fulfill his dream and find happiness.

That should be inspiring. Not for nothing, Fitzcarraldo is considered a classic and, for many, Herzog's best work.

But the truth is, it's hard to shake the fact that Herzog positioned himself as an artist using the same arrogant, exploitative system of the character he tried to portray with relative objectivity. How can you appreciate a work that wants - we assume - to show us the mistakes of cultural colonization when that same work has made exactly the same errors? Repeating an odyssey of the absurd does not magically dignify it. If anything, it exposes you as a stubborn man who didn't learn from history, which is worse.

The other unlikely option is that Herzog never really wanted to make a film about cultural colonialism. In other words, the casual piece of dialogue about the children who no longer consider themselves indigenous could be just that, a chillingly casual dialogue.

It doesn't really matter what Herzog had in mind. The gimmick of telling a story of exploitation, by emulating it in real life, can't be considered an "achievement."

So don't worry if you put Fitzcarraldo off your Herzog marathon. The worst thing we can do is keep elevating it when in reality no work of art deserves the exploitation of innocent people.


Fitzcarraldo Movie Details

Title: Fitzcarraldo

Release Year: 1982

Director(s): Werner Herzog

Writer(s): Werner Herzog

Actors: Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, José Lewgoy a.o.

© 2022 Sam Shepards

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