Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo is an extraordinary experience. The film takes place at the turn of the last century and concerns a crazed entrepreneur's efforts to raise enough money to bring Enrico Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt to the Amazon jungle for the opening of a grand opera house. Along the way Fitzcarraldo (played to the hilt by Klaus Kinski) is faced with ridicule, disbelief and the need to drag a steamship over a mountain.
I say that Herzog's film is an experience because it rises above the level of simple cinematic entertainment. Fitzcarraldo is more like a fever dream. The plot unfolds at a stately pace allowing viewers to be drawn into the fantastic atmosphere that Herzog creates. Each shot builds upon the last and by the time we're presented with a ship steaming up a hillside it seems to be an almost natural occurrence. Fitzcarraldo's will is so strong that he seems to bend reality itself to suit his obsessive needs.
Fitzcarraldo was filmed on location in the Amazon over the course of two years and is filled with striking images and beautiful compositions. Herzog disdains storyboards, preferring to build his shots based on what he sees on location. This leads to an on-the-fly look but his instincts are so finely honed that the feeling one gets is of the filmmaker's complete control over his subject. The anamorphic transfer on this DVD is as good as any you'll ever see. The colors are bright but not over saturated, image edges are crisp with no shimmer or bleed, shadow detail is very fine without sacrificing deep blacks and the flesh tones are very lifelike.
Fitzcarraldo was released in 1982 with a mono soundtrack. That's included here and should be fine for purists. For the DVD release the original tracks were remastered for two alternate Dolby Digital 5.1 versions in English and German. These 5.1 tracks are very well mixed and certainly add a new dimension to the film. The soundfield is very broad and makes good use of the surrounds for various ambient jungle noises including birds, rustling trees and bubbling water. The LFE channel gets a few thumps but doesn't stand out to the point that it distracts. Dialogue in all three versions is easily understandable and exhibits only a few instances of distortion.
Fitzcarraldo includes a number of interesting extras. First is a gallery of production photos and stills that show how Herzog and his crew worked on location. These images are presented in an interactive slideshow that you can click back and forth through. Next there are text screens for the main cast and Herzog himself. The screens are a cut above their standard brethren and include up to ten pages in each section. The original German theatrical trailer is also included. Finally there's an outstanding audio commentary track with Herzog, producer Lucki Stipetic and Norman Hill. In this track Herzog and Stipetic go into great detail concerning the production, their artistic approach, the motivation of the actors and just about every other aspect of Fitzcarraldo imaginable. This is one of the most insightful and interesting commentaries I've ever heard. It should be noted that Herzog speaks of a documentary that was made during the filming of Fitzcarraldo and it's a real shame that it isn't included on this disc.
Fitzcarraldo seems to have it all, from an interesting plot and fully rendered characterizations to consummate filmmaking and outstanding extra content. Make no mistake; this is an art film and may not be to everyone's liking. That being said I feel that every movie fan who approaches Fitzcarraldo with an open mind and allows him/herself to be drawn into the film should find it very rewarding. This is definitely one for the collection.