Conquest of the Useless
Reflections From the Making of “Fitzcarraldo”
Werner Herzog, translated from the German by Krishna Winston
Ecco: 306 pp., $24.99
Werner Herzog is famous for his cinematic depictions of obsessives and outsiders, from the El Dorado-seeking Spaniard played by Klaus Kinski in his 1972 international breakthrough, “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” to Timothy Treadwell, the doomed bear-worshiper of his 2005 documentary, “Grizzly Man.” Herzog’s own reputation as an obsessive, not to mention daredevil and doomsayer, was solidified by “Burden of Dreams,” a documentary chronicling Herzog’s trials while filming “Fitzcarraldo” in the Peruvian jungle in 1981.
“Conquest of the Useless: Reflections From the Making of ‘Fitzcarraldo’ ” comprises Herzog’s diaries from the three arduous years he worked on that movie, which earned him a best director award at Cannes in 1982 yet nearly derailed his career. It reveals him to be witty, compassionate, microscopically observant and -- your call -- either maniacally determined or admirably persevering.
“A vision had seized hold of me . . . ,” he writes in the book’s prologue. “It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso.”
Around this vision Herzog fashioned a script about an aspiring rubber baron who yearns to bring opera to the Amazon, a dream requiring him to haul a steamship over a mountain from one river to another to gain access to the rubber. When Herzog meets with 20th Century Fox executives to discuss his plan, he says they envision that “a plastic model ship will be pulled over a ridge in a studio, or possibly in a botanical garden.”
“I told them the unquestioned assumption had to be a real steamship being hauled over a real mountain, though not for the sake of realism but for the stylization characteristic of grand opera,” he writes, adding, “The pleasantries we exchanged from then on wore a thin coating of frost.”
As “Burden of Dreams” made clear, “Fitzcarraldo” turned into a metaphor for itself: Herzog and his protagonist shared the same impossible goal. The jungle shoot became famous for its calamities, including Herzog’s arrest by local authorities; the departure of the original star, Jason Robards, after he fell ill with dysentery; a border war between Peru and Ecuador; plane crashes; injuries; problematic weather; and an increasingly dejected crew.
“Conquest of the Useless” fills in the gaps of that account and shows what makes Herzog so compelling as an artist, particularly in his nonfiction films: his acute fascination with people and nature.
In the city of Iquitos, he writes: “Every evening, at exactly the same minute, several hundred thousand golondrinas, a kind of swallow, come to roost for the night in the trees on the Plaza de Armas. They form black lines on the cornices of buildings. The entire square is filled with their excited fluttering and twittering. Arriving from all different directions, the swarms of birds meet in the air above the square, circling like tornados in dizzying spirals. Then, as if a whirlwind were sweeping through, they suddenly descend onto the square, darkening the sky. The young ladies put up umbrellas to shield themselves from droppings.”
The book is also filled with terrifically funny and precise renderings of the creatures that inhabit the film crew’s two jungle camps -- ants, bats, tarantulas, mosquitoes, snakes, alligators, monkeys, rats, vultures, an albino turkey and an underwear-shredding ocelot. “For days a dead roach has been lying in our little shower stall, which is supplied with water from a gasoline drum on the roof,” Herzog writes in an entry dated “11 July 1979.” “The roach is so enormous in its monstrosity that it is like something that stepped out of a horror movie. It lies there all spongy, belly-up, and is so disgusting that none of us has had the nerve to get rid of it.”
He can spend a full page describing a daylong rainstorm and its aftermath, providing simple, telling details: “The tropical humidity is so intense that if you leave envelopes lying around they seal themselves.” He offers memories from his unusual early life (he grew up in a remote Bavarian mountain village) and engrossing recaps of weird stories people tell him. The effect is spellbinding.
He can be scathing -- the “people in Satipo were like vomit -- ugly, mean-spirited, unkempt, as if a town in the highlands had expelled its most degenerate elements and pushed them off into the jungle” -- and sensitive, as when cinematographer Thomas Mauch tears open his hand and undergoes surgery without anesthesia: “I held his head and pressed it against me, and a silent wall of faces surrounded us. Mauch said he could not take any more, he was going to faint, and I told him to go ahead.” (What Herzog does next to soothe Mauch is both hilarious and moving.)
Herzog replaced Robards with Kinski, his lead from three previous films, who presented a new set of problems. As Herzog showed in his extraordinary 1999 film about Kinski, “My Best Fiend,” the guy was intolerable. Herzog is stoic in the face of Kinski’s hours of “uninterrupted ranting and raving,” calling him an “absolute pest” in an “Yves St. Laurent bush outfit.” Representatives of the Indians who serve as extras matter-of-factly offer to kill him.
Herzog, of course, isn’t exactly easygoing. He comes across as impatient and wants to do everything himself, right now. And his admiration for nature is overshadowed by his nonstop declarations about its malevolence -- the sun is “murderous,” mists are “angry,” the jungle has “silent killing in its depths.” (In “Grizzly Man,” he says that “the common character of the universe is not harmony but hostility, chaos and murder,” so we know his sentiments haven’t changed.)
As the months in the jungle pass, delirium sets in. “There are widely divergent views as to what day of the month it is,” Herzog writes. The engineer hired to help guide the ship over the ridge quits. But Herzog carries on, and the tone of the diaries shifts from dreamy to nightmarish: “No one’s on my side anymore, not one person, not one single person. In the midst of hundreds of Indian extras, dozens of woodsmen, boatmen, kitchen personnel, the technical team, and the actors, solitude flailed at me like a huge enraged animal.”
For decades Herzog has declared his resistance to introspection; he claims not to know the color of his eyes, since he detests looking into mirrors, and is outspoken about his contempt for psychoanalysis. So his vulnerability here is noteworthy. “At night I’m even lonelier than during the day,” he writes. “I listened intently to the silence, pierced by tormented insects and tormented animals. Even the motors of our boats have something tormented about them.”
It’s hard to know how to read such hyperbolic sentiments, especially given his dry wit. When, after months of trying, he finally gets the ship over the ridge, bringing “Fitzcarraldo” near completion, how does he feel? The book’s sardonic title says it all.
Levi is co-author of “The Film Snob’s Dictionary.”