Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Shout! Factory
Cast: Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Theatrical Trailer

The love for opera, determination and a degree of obsession is what defines Shout! Factory’s latest release, “Fitzcarraldo”. As much as these elements determine the film’s main character, they also manifest themselves in the film’s creator, Werner Herzog, quite a bit. Herzog is a German director with an attitude that has never bowed to audience or critics’ expectations, and over the course of his career, the maestro created a series of truly remarkable and highly individual films. Next to “Nosferatu”, “Fitzcarraldo” is certainly Herzog’s most renown film, and it is making its debut on Blu-Ray Disc now through Shout! Factory.

Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski) is an avid lover of opera, and the Italian singer Enrico Caruso in particular. While that may not be anything out of the ordinary, it is notable here, because Fitzcarraldo is living deep in the Peruvian jungle. As the movie begins, we see him arriving at the opera house of Manaus after having gone through a torturous trip through the jungle that took him and his wife Molly (Claudia Cardinale) days to complete. Fitzcarraldo is obsessed with the thought of getting to see Caruso live at the opera house, no matter what the price may be, and after the performance he decides to build an opera house in the jungle himself, so that everyone would have the opportunity to enjoy the enchantment of opera music. No surprisingly, despite his enthusiasm, Fitzcarraldo has trouble finding financial support for this idea. The entire community is laughing at him. After all, this was the same man who created ice for sale in the jungle, and who lost a fortune on a daring railroad project. The people in his community simply cannot wrap their brains around his daring ideas, and not a one has faith in his abilities. Using up his wife’s last savings, he decides to get into the rubber business like everyone else in order to make the fortune he needs to fulfill his dream.

By that time, however, most of the jungle has been split up between the rubber barons already, and all that is left is a remote, almost inaccessible piece of land no one really wants. Fitzcarraldo buys it and sets about to take his ship up the river through dangerous Indian territory to begin harvesting his rubber. When his crew abandons the ship in fear, the visionary seems to run out of luck yet again, but then he decides to use an age-old prophecy of the Indians for his own good luck.

In a never-before seen effort, he manages to pass through the Indian territory and sets about to pull the entire ship over a mountain ridge in the jungle to reach his goal.

“Fitzcarraldo” may start out a little slow, with viewers at first shaking their head at the protagonist’s spleeny ideas. It takes a little time to get familiar with the lush jungle setting of the film where completely white-dressed white people live among natives in the dirt. After a few minutes however, the story builds and the viewer finds himself curiously intrigued by the mocked-at character of Fitzcarraldo, and the wondrous prospect that could perhaps even succeed.

The late Klaus Kinski has been well known as being an overly eccentric character actor throughout his career, adding to his enigmatic and manic perception with delirious TV appearances and comments that made TV history to the point that he was removed from TV shows while on the air. “Politically correct” has never been a phrase in his vocabulary, and it made him many critics and fans alike. Not surprisingly, Kinski is carrying most of “Fitzcarraldo” as the titular character. Although there are a number of other important characters in the story, the film almost solely focuses on Fitzcarraldo and his obsession.

From the initial moments where even the viewer believes that Fitzcarraldo is a clueless daydreamer, Kinski and writer/producer/director Werner Herzog slowly and continually work on the way we see the character. Gradually they carve out new sides and add new facets to his personality until we are eventually convinced that if someone is capable of ever achieving this, it would be Fitzcarraldo. In the early scenes of the film, we smile when he pulls out his phonograph to play his dusty and scratchy Caruso records, but as the film progresses, we begin to applaud him for doing so, for pulling all of his strength and self-esteem from his opera-fuelled conviction that, quite literally, anything is possible. This external transformation of the character’s perception through our eyes is mesmerizing to behold, especially since the character himself does not change, and the highly visual style of the film pulls us into the world of the jungle, filled with life, danger, mosquitoes and sweat.

Shout! Factory is releasing “Fitzcarraldo” in a brand-new high definition transfer that has been completely supervised by Werner Herzog himself. It is presented in the film’s original theatrical 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio.
Shot under the harshest of circumstances on location in the Amazon jungle, it is hardly surprising that the film has a certain grittiness to it. There is quite some grain visible in the film, especially during the opening scenes, but it fades after a few minutes and is clearly a result of the film stock that has been originally used for these scenes and optical treatment they have undergone to superimpose the credits and opening subtitles. The film transfer itself is beautiful and without major defects, restoring all of the movie’s highly cinematic beauty that the cast and crew went to significant lengths to achieve. Color reproduction is fabulous with absolutely natural looking colors and flesh tones.

The disc contains the film’s original German audio track, alongside with the English version. Both are clean and without defects, and it adds to the impressive presentation that Shout! Factory puts on display with this release. Listen especially for the ambient noises in the jungle to fully savor the quality of this audio presentation.

The commentary track found on the disc, featuring Werner Herzog and producer Lucki Stipetic is also very enlightening, revealing much of the ideals the filmmakers had when making this movie. Especially in the case of the rather reclusive Herzog, it is quite interesting to hear how he feels about his work in general, and certain scenes from “Fitzcarraldo” in particular. It is evident however, that he is not entirely comfortable talking about his film in such explicit detail for such an extended amount of time and moderator Norman Hill has to raise certain questions here and there to keep the discussion going. Altogether however, this commentary is a must of all fans of the film or the director.

The release also includes a second commentary track, a German language commentary featuring Herzog with Laurens Straub as they discuss the film. The track is subtitled, of course, in the eventuality that you do not speak German.

If you think “Fitzcarraldo” has a lot of intensity, you are absolutely correct. After all, Herzog and his crew made sure to actually pull the real ship over a real mountain in the jungle for authenticity reasons. It is an effort that may seem ridiculous and out of proportion to some, but the result is a reproduction of the willpower and the conviction it would take to do such a thing with subtle nuances that add to its impact. Anything else would be considered cheating by director Werner Herzog, and this upright attitude can be found throughout the film. He recaps events in film, as opposed to staging them for their own sake. It is an element that is not found very often in today’s films and adds a notable freshness and unique feel to the film. “Fitzcarraldo” is not an ordinary movie, but then again, it was never intended to. It is a film about dreams, obsession and the determination to achieve the impossible.

I can’t express my delight at this Blu-Ray version of this film. It gives viewers the chance to really enjoy and appreciate the vision that Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski brought to the screen here. And if you would like to learn even more about the director’s work, make sure to check out my interview with Werner Herzog that I conducted a number of years ago.