Herzog aggrandized this event for his film, envisioning a promethean undertaking that would illustrate the maximum of the human capacity to surmount barriers when driven by a passionate idea. The result is an astounding scene in which Fitzcarraldo mobilizes an indigenous tribe to drag his steamboat over a mountain, a feat Herzog directed entirely without special effects. In Fitzcarraldo, as is apparent in the documentary Burden of Dreams, Herzog expresses his ambivalent relationship with Latin America through his protagonist. Like Herzog, Fitzcarraldo is spiritually moved when he experiences the landscape as sublime but at the same time repelled by perceiving it as vicious and base.
The film begins with a “civilization versus nature” motif that is ongoing. The first scene pans over the Amazon Basin, which appears prehistoric, then cuts to a grandiose theater in Manaus, Brazil. Fitzcarraldo (played by Klaus Kinski) arrives with his lover Molly via a rowboat, and the flustered pair stumbles into the theatre for the final scene of an opera starring Caruso. Fitzcarraldo catches the idea of building an opera house to bring Caruso to his town of Iquitos like one catches a fever. He becomes agitated and reckless, screaming from the bell-tower that Iquitos must have an opera house and drunkenly insisting that his contemporaries share his rapturous appreciation for opera. A sympathetic Don Aquilino shows him a regional map where there is an unexploited tract of rubber trees on the side of an isthmus that is inaccessible due to treacherous rapids.
Fitzcarraldo eagerly purchases the tract of land and a steamboat, signing a contract with the Peruvian government to productively use the land within nine months. The voyage southward is initially leisurely and filled with surreal elements, such as the partially blind captain who warns that the jungle impedes the ability to discern between reality and illusion. However, as the steamboat enters the territory of an allegedly headhunting tribe, a sinister mood intensifies to the point that most of the crew abandons ship. Tribesmen board the ship soon afterward, but do not harm the crew because they believe that gods in a white vessel will bring them salvation. Though they do not consider the crew to be gods, Fitzcarraldo intends to use their fixation with the ship unscrupulously to his advantage.
The steamboat finally reaches the isthmus. Fitzcarraldo plans have it pulled overland, used to exploit the rubber trees, pulled back and returned to Iquitos until he has sold enough rubber to finance the opera house. In the following months the indigenous people toil until the steamboat is dragged over the blasted and deforested mountain by a series of pulleys. However, the night after it reaches the opposite bank the tribesmen cut it loose, sending it northward towards the deathly rapids. The ship is heavily battered but survives, as does its crew of four men. Fitzcarraldo learns that the indigenous people toiled for their own ends, believing that delivering the sacred vessel would quell the rapids. Because Fitzcarraldo is now destitute Don Aquilino repurchases the steamboat. With this cash, Fitzcarraldo converts it temporarily into a theatre stage to carry an Italian opera production past the shores of Iquitos, thereby realizing a smaller-scale and fleeting version of his original dream.
Compared to their temperate environment, colonial Europeans cast the tropical environment of Latin America as both awe-inspiring for its beauty and grandeur and loathsome for its chaotic, promiscuous and pestilent growth. This conflicting projection is present in Fitzcarraldo, as is the typically colonial concept of nature as something to be conquered by technology and refined by culture. Fitzcarraldo is constantly antagonized by nature and he fights back with dynamite and opera. Interestingly, such attitudes do not only belong to the nineteenth-century characters but to the director himself, as is clear in Burden of Dreams. Herzog’s own feelings of desperation, wretchedness and struggle seem to permeate the film.
The native people of the Amazon have no notable roles or dialogue. We learn very little about their culture, but Herzog does subtly satirize European misrepresentations them as shrunken head collectors and the objects of civilizing projects. Fitzcarraldo simultaneously romanticizes the native people, by likening their belief system to a type of opera, and abuses them by working them to the bone. However, Fitzcarraldo is more akin to them in their indomitable spirit that is capable of moving mountains for an abstract belief than to his social class of rubber barons and railway tycoons, whose only aim and skill lies in finding the easiest way to make the most money.