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By Bret McCabe | Posted 3/15/2006

Crazy is as crazy does, but rare, if ever, does stark raving achieve something as empyreal as this 1982 Werner Herzog achievement. The story is almost immaterial: A 19th-century German businessman (Klaus Kinski) decides to bring opera to his adopted, remote South American jungle home; to do so, he has to move a 300-something-ton riverboat over a hill from one river to another. To realize this tale—an ordeal captured in Les Blank’s 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams—Herzog, his crew, cast, and local Peruvians actually move a 300-something-ton boat over a hill. Even 20 years on, the most sophisticated special effects can’t top witnessing real people battle real mud and the very real laws of physics to inch a gigantic white vessel up an unforgiving slope. The shadow of colonial politics hangs over every frame here, but it’s Kinski’s Fitzcarraldo—the indigenous pidgin of his Fitzgerald surname—as the naive obsessive that fascinates. One of the few childlike dreamers in the Polish actor’s lengthy filmography, Kinski weathers the jungle in his white suit and hat and compresses Fitzcarraldo’s dreams into a diminutive man with aspirations far beyond not only his ken but lot in life. It’s an impossibly downplayed performance in one of the most legendarily maniacal productions, the one suggesting he was as intensely gifted as he was difficult.

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