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German film poster
Directed by Werner Herzog
Produced by Werner Herzog
Lucki Stipetić
Written by Werner Herzog
Starring Klaus Kinski
Claudia Cardinale
José Lewgoy
Music by Popol Vuh
Cinematography Thomas Mauch
Edited by Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus
Distributed by Filmverlag der Autoren (BRD)
Anchor Bay Films
Release dates
  • 5 March 1982 (1982-03-05) (BRD)
Running time
157 minutes
Country West Germany
Language German
(Shot in English)

Fitzcarraldo is a 1982 West German surreal and partly bizarre adventure-drama film written and directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski as the title character. It portrays would-be rubber baron Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, an Irishman known in Peru as Fitzcarraldo, who is determined to transport a steamship over a steep hill in order to access a rich rubber territory in the Amazon Basin. The film is derived from the historic events of Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald.


  • Plot 1
  • Cast 2
  • Production 3
    • Accusations of exploitation 3.1
  • Music 4
  • Reception 5
  • Awards 6
  • Related works 7
  • Representation in other media 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11


Brian Sweeney "Fitzcarraldo" Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) is an Irishman living in Iquitos, a small city east of the Andes in the Amazon Basin in Peru in the early part of the 20th century, when the city grew exponentially during the rubber boom. He has an indomitable spirit, but is little more than a dreamer with one major failure already behind him – the bankrupted and incomplete Trans-Andean railways. A lover of opera and a great fan of the internationally known Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, he dreams of building an opera house in Iquitos. Numerous Europeans and North African Sephardic Jewish immigrants have settled in the city at this time, bringing their cultures with them. The opera house will require considerable amounts of money, which the booming rubber industry in Peru should yield in profits. The areas in the Amazon Basin known to contain rubber trees have been parceled up by the Peruvian government and are leased to private companies for exploitation.

Fitzcarraldo explores entering the rubber business. A helpful rubber baron points out on a map the only remaining unclaimed parcel in the area. He explains that while it is located on the Ucayali River, a major tributary of the Amazon, it is cut off from the Amazon (and access to Atlantic ports) by a lengthy section of rapids. Fitzcarraldo sees that the Pachitea River, another Amazon tributary, comes within several hundred meters of the Ucayali upstream of the parcel.[1] He plans to investigate that.

He leases the inaccessible parcel from the government. His paramour, Molly (Claudia Cardinale), a successful brothel owner, funds his purchase of an old steamship (which he christens the SS Molly Aida). After recruiting a crew, he takes off up the Pachitea, the parallel river. This river has dangerous interior areas because of its indigenous people hostile to outsiders. Fitzcarraldo plans to go to the closest point between the two rivers and, with the manpower of impressed natives (who are nearly enslaved by many rubber companies), physically pull his three-story, 320-ton steamer over the muddy 40° hillside across a portage from one river to the next.[2] Using the steamer, he will collect rubber produced on the upper Ucayali and bring it down the Pachitea and the Amazon to market at Atlantic ports.

The majority of the ship's crew, at first unaware of Fitzcarraldo's plan, abandon the expedition soon after entering indigenous territory, leaving only the captain, engineer, and cook. Impressed by Fitzcarraldo and his ship, the natives start working for him without fully understanding his goals. After great struggles, they successfully pull the ship over the mountain with a complex system of pulleys, worked by the natives and aided by the ship's engine. When the crew falls asleep after a drunken celebration, the chief of the natives severs the rope securing the ship to the shore. It floats down the river. The chief wanted to appease the river gods, who would otherwise be angered that Fitzcarraldo defied nature by circumventing them.

Though the ship traverses the Ucayali rapids without major damage, Fitzcarraldo and his crew are forced to return to Iquitos without any rubber. Despondent, Fitzcarraldo sells the ship back to the rubber baron, but first sends the captain on a last voyage. He returns with the entire cast for the first opera production, including Caruso. The entire city of Iquitos comes to the shore as Fitzcarraldo, standing atop the ship, proudly displays the cast.

Herzog's first version of the story was published as Fitzcarraldo: The Original Story (1982) from Fjord Press (ISBN 0-940242-04-4). He made alterations while writing the screenplay.



The remains of the steamer used in the movie, in Madre de Dios Region. Photo: Dr. Eugen Lehle

The story was inspired by the historical figure of Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald. In the 1890s, Fitzcarrald arranged for the transport of a steamship across an isthmus from one river into another, but it weighed only 30 tons (rather than over 300), and was carried over in pieces to be reassembled at its destination.[2][3]

In his autobiographical film Portrait Werner Herzog, Herzog said that he concentrated in Fitzcarraldo on the physical effort of transporting the ship, partly inspired by the engineering feats of ancient standing stones. The film production was an incredible ordeal, and famously involved moving a 320-ton steamship over a hill. This was filmed without the use of special effects. Herzog believed that no one had ever performed a similar feat in history, and likely never will again, calling himself "Conquistador of the Useless".[4] Three similar-looking ships were bought for the production and used in different scenes and locations, including scenes that were shot aboard the ship while it crashed through rapids. Three of the six people involved in the filming were injured during this passage.

Casting of the film was difficult. Jason Robards was originally cast in the title role, but he became ill with dysentery during early filming. After leaving for treatment, he was forbidden by his doctors to return. Herzog considered casting Jack Nicholson, or playing the role of Fitzcarraldo himself, before Klaus Kinski accepted the role. Herzog had done considerable film work with Kinski. By that point, forty percent of shooting with Robards was complete. For continuity, Herzog had to begin a total reshoot with Kinski. Mick Jagger was originally cast as Fitzcarraldo's assistant Wilbur, but due to the delays, his shooting schedule expired. He departed to tour with the Rolling Stones. Herzog dropped Jagger's character from the script altogether as he reshot the film from the beginning. Brazilian actor Grande Otelo and singer Milton Nascimento play minor parts.

Kinski provoked crises in the production, as he fought virulently with Herzog and other members of the crew. A scene from Herzog's documentary of the actor, My Best Fiend, shows Kinski raging at production manager Walter Saxer over trivial matters, such as the quality of the food. Herzog notes that the native extras were greatly upset by the actor's behavior. Kinski claimed to feel close to them. In My Best Fiend, Herzog says that one of the native chiefs offered in all seriousness to kill Kinski for him, but that he declined because he needed the actor to complete filming. According to Herzog, he exploited these tensions: in a scene in which the ship's crew is eating dinner while surrounded by the natives, the clamor the chief incites over Fitzcarraldo was inspired by their hatred of Kinski.

Locations used for the film include: Manaus, Brazil; Iquitos, Peru; Pongo de Mainique, Peru; an isthmus between the Urubamba and the Camisea rivers, Peru at -11.737294,-72.934542.

Accusations of exploitation

Herzog has been accused of exploiting indigenous people in the making of the film, with some drawing similarities between Herzog and Fitzcarraldo. Michael F. Brown, a professor of anthropology at Williams College, notes that initially Herzog was on good terms with the Aguaruna people, some of whom were hired as extras for the film and for construction. Relations deteriorated, however, when Herzog began to build a village on Aguaruna land, failed to consult the tribal council, and tried to obtain protection from a local militia. In December 1979, Aguaruna men burned down the film set.[5]


The soundtrack album (released in 1982) contains music by Popol Vuh, taken from the albums Die Nacht der Seele (1979) and Sei still, wisse ich bin (1981),[6][7] performances by Enrico Caruso, and others. The film uses excerpts from the operas: Verdi's Ernani, Leoncavallo's Pagliacci ("Ridi, Pagliaccio"), Puccini's La bohème, Bellini's I puritani, and from Richard Strauss' orchestral work Death and Transfiguration.


The film holds an 83% Fresh rating on the movie aggregate Rotten Tomatoes. The movie critic Roger Ebert gave the movie four stars in his original 1982 review; he added it to his "Great Movie" collection in 2005.[8][9]


The film won the German Film Prize in Silver for Best Feature Film. The film was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Film, the Palme d'Or award of the Cannes Film Festival, and the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Herzog won the award for Best Director at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival.[10] The film was selected as the West German entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 55th Academy Awards, but did not make the short list of nominees.[11]

Related works

Les Blank's documentary Burden of Dreams (1982), filmed during the production of this drama, documents its many hardships. Blank's work contains some of the only surviving footage of Robards' and Jagger's performances in the early filming of Fitzcarraldo. Herzog later used portions of this work in his documentaries: Portrait Werner Herzog (1986) and My Best Fiend (1999). Burden of Dreams has many scenes documenting the arduous transport of the ship over the mountain.

Herzog's personal diaries from the production were published in 2009 as the book Conquest of the Useless by Ecco Press. The book includes an epilogue with Herzog's views on the Peruvian jungle 20 years later.[12]

Representation in other media

The Metalocalypse season-two episode "Dethcarraldo" parodies elements of the film, including a scene where a massive ship is pulled over a mountain.

In her 1983 parody "From the diary of Werner Herzog" in the The Boston Phoenix, Cathleen Schine describes the history of a fictitious film Fritz: Commuter as "a nightmarish tale of a German businessman obsessed with bringing professional hockey to Westport, Connecticut".[13]

Glen Hansard wrote a song entitled "Fitzcarraldo", which appears on The Frames 1995 album of the same name. On their live album Set List, Hansard says that Herzog's film inspired this song.

Destroyer's song "Virgin with a Memory" from the 2001 album Streethawk: A Seduction begins with the lyric, "Was it the movie or the making of Fitzcarraldo where someone learned to love again?" It contains other references to the film.

The movie was referred to in the Simpsons episode "On a Clear Day I Can't See My Sister," in which the students are forced to pull the bus up a mountain. Üter complains, "I feel like I'm 'Fitzcarraldo'!" Nelson replies, "That movie was flawed!", punching Üter in the stomach.[14]

See also


  1. ^ This is fictional. The Pachitea is a tributary of the Ucayali, not a third river, and their confluence is nearly 500 kilometers south of Iquitos. The true map looks nothing like the one Fitzcarraldo draws.
  2. ^ a b  
  3. ^  
  4. ^ Herzog, Werner (2001). Herzog on Herzog.  
  5. ^ Brown, Michael F. (August 1982). "Art of Darkness" (PDF). The Progressive: 20. Retrieved 4 January 2015. 
  6. ^ Fitzcarraldo soundtrack album
  7. ^ Fitzcarraldo soundtrack album at Discogs (list of releases)
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Fitzcarraldo". Chicago Sun-Times. 
  9. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Fitzcarraldo (1982)". Chicago Sun-Times. 
  10. ^ "Fitzcarraldo"Festival de Cannes: . Retrieved 11 June 2009. 
  11. ^ Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
  12. ^ Addiego, Walter (3 August 2009). Conquest of the Useless,' by Werner Herzog"'". The San Francisco Chronicle. 
  13. ^  
  14. ^ [2]

External links

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