“This man is harmless, he just had a soul stirring experience.”
– Don Aquilino (José Lewgoy).
Deep in the Peruvian rain forests, bankrupt entrepreneur Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), known to the locals as Fitzcarraldo, has one obsession. His dream is to build an opera house within the harsh and unforgiving jungle terrain of Iquitos, and in doing so free his beloved music from the ornate, marble palaces of the dry bourgeoisie.
Persuaded by his understanding, brothel-owning lover, Molly (Claudia Cardinale), Fitzcarraldo arrives at a social gathering for local rubber barons in the hope of gaining investors for his elaborate scheme. His plan is simple, to entice them by letting the music speak for itself.
Surrounded by bloated decadence and opulent displays of food and riches, Fitzcarraldo puts his gramophone on a small table in the centre of the room and places a needle on his shellac disc of choice. As the music begins he gestures for others to join him in his euphoric appreciation of all things operatic, expecting them to feel the same emotional pull as he does.
But he is only met with derision as the guests continue to incessantly chatter amongst themselves and mock his efforts. These are people who feed money to fish and export their laundry in fear of the “impure” waters of the Amazon. These are the pompous bastions of spineless mediocrity: insular, spiritually redundant philistines.
A drunken guest attempts to remove the record and Fitzcarraldo reacts with force. As several servants and guests attempt to restrain him, Fitzcarraldo breaks free and grabs hold of his gramophone, desperately holding it to his chest as if his life depended on it, as if it contained his actual soul. It’s not just a machine that makes sounds it’s part of who he is. It’s the very thing that keeps him alive and resilient against the odds.
The host implies that he is no better than a dog, a conquistador of the useless. Fitzcarraldo responds by violently downing several glasses of champagne, toasting Verdi, Rossini, and Caruso, and then accusing the host of living in a world that is nothing more than a rotten caricature of great opera, before making his exit.
The most celebrated moments in Werner Herzog’s masterpiece may involve a massive boat being pulled over a mountain, but it’s this scene that tells you everything you need to know about Fitzcarraldo.
What he lacks in social etiquette and status he makes up for in vision and determination. The solemn and self-appointed elite, those that take refuge in the vapid posturing of social hierarchy, often misconstrue passion for madness. Fitzcarraldo’s passion lies in music itself, and like most people with an affinity towards music it is a pure and unconditional love. A belief that in those harmonised vibrations is the transcendent promise of freedom. It is not the avoidance of adversity that brings peace of mind and contentment to Fitzcarraldo, but the acceptance of it, for when the river you travel becomes a stagnant pool it is fate far worse than death.