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.