CONQUEST OF THE USELESS: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo

Werner Herzog
translated by Krishna Winston
Ecco ($24.99)

by Scott Bryan Wilson

“My life seems like a stranger’s house to me,” writes Werner Herzog late in Conquest of the Useless, less a straightforward diary of 1979-81, when he was working on Fitzcarraldo, than a series of “inner landscapes, born of the delirium of the jungle.” The film tells the story of the title character (played by Herzog’s frequent collaborator Klaus Kinski), a man who dreams of opening an opera house in a remote corner of Peru; to avoid treacherous rapids and natives alike, Fitzcarraldo opts to drag all of his equipment, including an enormous steamship, over a mountain rather than sail around it. It’s classic Herzog—a relentless, obsessive dreamer refusing to bow down to the savagery of nature, the laws of physics, or common sense.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the story of making the film is as insane as its plot. Filming in the jungle, Herzog faces military coups, financial collapse, no contact with the outside world, terrible food, lice, quicksand, piranhas, numerous cast and crew deaths, poisonous snakes, tarantulas, self-amputations, and attacks by indigenous tribes. “The powers of heaven are powerless against the jungle,” he remarks. Sleep doesn’t come easy in the midst of all this, either—Herzog feels trapped in “labyrinths of weariness with no escape,” and notes that he doesn’t “know what real sleep is anymore; I just have brief, strenuous fainting spells.”

Other people are also problematic. Many of the natives that make up the majority of his crew and cast turn out to be drunks, thieves, and liars; his other associates include “the biggest crooks imaginable” as well as “the gangly young bookkeeper from the city, whose mere presence is death to any meaningful thoughts.” His actors aren’t much better, with the exception of Mick Jagger, whose part was written out after production was shut down (Herzog simply felt that he could not be replaced). The director was less kind towards American Jason Robards (who was originally slated to play Fitzcarraldo) and the Italian-German actor Mario Adorf, calling them “cowards, whose real problem stems from their appalling inner emptiness.” Adorf especially falls under the director’s harsh scrutiny; Herzog calls him “a whiner, a stupid star full of posturing who cannot stand it that the Indian extras are sometimes more important than he is, the famous actor. Furthermore, he is simply cowardly, sneaky, and dumb, high-decibel dumb.”

When Robards bolts for America, Herzog briefly considers playing the role of Fitzcarraldo himself, as his “project and the character have become identical”—that is, the quest of a madman. In the end he calls in his “best fiend” Klaus Kinski, who erupts into childish tantrums and tirades from the moment he arrives, including one on his first day during costuming, when someone touches his hair: “Not even my hairdresser is allowed to touch my hair, Kinski screamed.” Herzog admits in his journal that one of Kinski’s main problems is his “inadequate supply of human compassion and depth,” and some Indians, who have had enough of his outbursts, offer to kill him. Herzog convinces them that that won’t be necessary, otherwise the film would never be completed.

If you’ve seen any of the films which Herzog narrates or appears in, two things will stand out about him: his hypnotic voice, with its mellifluous German accent, and his inimitable syntax, word choice, and use of metaphor. In fact, it’s difficult to read Conquest of the Useless without hearing it in his slow, unmistakable speech patterns. Whether describing in great detail the unimaginative plot of a Spanish comic book called Texas 1800 or the infinite happenings in the jungle, he renders everything in the same beautiful, dry style. Often the subject matter can be pathetic or gruesome: “I saw a dog, the saddest of all; he was swaying on his feet, moving in a sort of hunched-over, squirming reptilian fashion. On his back and shoulders he had open ulcers, which he kept trying to bite, contorting his head and body.” Yet it can also be gracefully tender: “The people’s gestures are unfamiliar, gentle and lovely; they move their hands like orchestral conductors in time with a soft, shy melody that emanates cautiously from the depths of the forest, like wild creatures that emerge from the sheltering leaves now and then to go down to the rivers.”

Sometimes Herzog juxtaposes thought after thought, jamming them up against another as if to recall them later, with no care as to how they fit together: “The lookout point at Tres Cruces. Casting propellers. The business with the dolphins. Striking teachers locked themselves into the church ten days ago and are ringing the bells. At the market I ate a piece of grilled monkey—it looked like a naked child.” It’s his almost throwaway observations, though, the ones which aren’t linked with anything specific about the making of the film, which stand out as tiny pieces in the tapestry of Herzog’s experiences: “I saw a crippled young woman in shorts climbing into a tree with crutches”; “On the back of a motorcycle a pole was fastened horizontally with a dozen live chickens attached by their feet, and also a tied-up hog. Their heads were dragged in the dust kicked up by the rear tire”; “Very early in the morning the cripples bathe at the beach.” He even somehow manages to see a number of films while in the jungle: “Because of the strike there was a large rally today on the Plaza 28 de Julio, with speakers shouting and gesticulating the way Mussolini did in the thirties. I went to the movies and saw a film in which a madman wanted to exterminate the race of blacks, but three muscular athletes stopped him.”

Conquest of the Useless is a fascinating account of one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers, one who refuses to compromise in the least, and who puts himself through hell to get his films made. Herzog basically sums up the pursuit early in the account: “A fairly young, intelligent-looking man with long hair asked me whether filming or being filmed could do harm, whether it could destroy a person. In my heart the answer was yes, but I said no.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009