Saturday, January 26, 2008
Now, Fitzcarraldo, an Irish emigre in Peru, "conquistador of the useless", after many unsuccessful business enterprises, gatecrashes into an opera house, with his mistress, hands bandaged and bleeding, demanding to see his beloved Caruso perform, in the heart of Peruvian wilderness, in the forest, beside the forest, among the natives. And from there, comes the desire to build an opera house, in this wilderness and invite the best of Europe to perform, at any cost, at whatever it takes, for this is the only thing that must be done.
Fitzcarraldo, one of the great collaborations between Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog is a feat in cinematic brilliance, a movie that exists on its own, without many comparisons, and open to different interpretations, depending on your dominant mood. And those familiar with Kinski see the same brilliance, the touch of genius that is characteristic of this great actor. So, Fitzcarraldo, now raving with an obsessive desire for his opera, must have money to realize his dream, money that is insufficient from his manufacturing ice and since this drama is at the turn of the 20th century, Peru divided between rubber dons, he decides to join this grand exploitation of the rubber trees, to finance his dreams. He is helped to buy a ship for this expedition by his mistress( who runs a brothel) and after assorting a motley crew, he sets off, down the amazon, towards Pongo das Mortes, towards the rubber trees, an area savaged by native Indians, unenthusiastic about the civilizing whites.
We are thus witnessing a drama, an adventure, as this ship heaves and rolls on with Fitzcarraldo, with his obsessive drive commanding a nervous crew, as they enter the dangerous Indian territory. The crew flee, just three persons stay back with Fitzcarraldo as they are surrounded by the natives. However, in a strange reversal, they turn to be his helpers as he decides to cut through a mountain and the ship is dragged through it, into the raging torrents, where finally lost, it flounders and Fitzcarraldo is back, lost and defeated.
This movie can be seen, seen for the sheer delights of a tropical kind, especially as the ship, surrounded by invisible hums rolls into the heart of fear. And also for the great technical qualities, the immensity of effort as Herzog battled to steer the ship through forest and rock. But who is Fitzcarraldo and what does he want? He desires an opera house and Caruso, in the wildest Peruvian jungles, he claims to be "the spectacle of the forest". Realizing the difficulties, he declares that he will "move a mountain". He has no concerns for anyone except himself. He loves his opera, his music, he does not believe in anything else. Apart from that, I thought, as he steered his ship, that I was in the heart of darkness, Conrad's apology to imperialism, for it is impossible not to see the parallels, this great civilizing mission, this operatic imperialism, this conversion.
As the invisible chants get louder and menacing, Fitzcarraldo takes his gramaphone out and blares his opera at the forest, at the invisible, deadly natives. In its very execution, this scene is comic and shows his desperation, but the humming stops, the noise abates, as they listen, listen and as a reverence to a superior expression, they obey. Is not this a kind of imperial motif, Fitzcarraldo acting through opera, bearing on the soul of the unconverted, crushing him through music, through wails. I saw parallels towards apocalypse now as napalm and classical music blare along with cowboy hats and nauseating accents, as the very marauding face of imperialism is softened through music. Herzog declared his disinterest in the native situation, his story is that of fitzcarraldo's obsession and as I said earlier, we can accept that. The ship, a tool, the rubber dons, exploiters, the natives defeated and naked, these are familiar stories. However, one cannot but question Fitzcarraldo, for one should ask and question his blindness towards his surroundings.
The creator cannot distance himself from his created, from his actions. Herzog, the artist must bear responsibility for the savagery that he does not justify nor condemn. The ship, cutting through forests and mountains is an imperial adventure, that he makes clear. However, the opera, the opera house and its silencing the natives is one too. We see the last image of Fitzcarraldo, on his ship that he has now sold, to finance a last performance, with an expensive cigar; he stands, surveying, burning, fuming. He is a megalomaniac, his desire is manic and even in his defeat, he is rigid and proud. Fitzcarraldo is a dangerous man, who only loves himself, and as he smokes his cigar, we are reminded that this is kinski, in a performance that unsettles the viewer. Kinski smoulders on the screen, unpredictable and mercurial, raging and fighting and when we see him as the movie begins, he is already breathless, tired, bloodied and brilliant. Within a few minutes, we are in the vicinity of genius.