Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Conquest of the Useless: Reflections From the Making of Fitzcarraldo, by Werner Herzog

"I looked around, and there was the jungle, manifesting the same seething hatred, wrathful and steaming, while the river flowed by in majestic indifference and scornful condescension, ignoring everything:  the plight of man, the burden of dreams, and the torments of time."
                                                                                                                         -- 299



A couple of months ago I found great joy in reading Ned Beauman's strange but wonderful novel Madness is Better Than Defeat, set mainly in the Honduran jungle which among other things, features a character whose task is to direct a film called "Hearts in Darkness" against the backdrop of an old Mayan temple. What he and his crew of actors and others do not know before they leave is that this same temple is also the destination for another group sent into the jungle, whose job is to dismantle the ruin piece by piece and ship it back to the US.  Eventually both groups come together and a standoff ensues.  One of the things that struck me while reading this book was the director's obsession with finishing this film and getting it just right in spite of the ensuing calamities, and it was impossible to read it without thinking about the making of Apocalypse Now and all of the huge setbacks encountered by Francis Ford Coppola.  After reading the book I looked through several interviews with Ned Beauman, and somewhere (and with apologies, I was dumb and didn't bookmark it), he made mention of Werner Herzog, another obsessive director who made Fitzcarraldo.  I'd seen the movie eons ago but I decided I'd watch it again, which then led me to Burden of Dreams,  the story behind that film.  Both were fascinating, but I wasn't quite finished yet -- I had to buy a copy of Herzog's Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo because at that time I was hooked on this story.  And I had to know what made this man tick.



9780061575549
Ecco, 2010
originally published as Eroberung des Nutzlosen, 2004
translated by Krishna Winston
306 pp -- paperback



As Herzog tells us in his preface, the book is not a collection of "reports on the actual filming," and it is not a journal, "except in a very general sense."  He refers to it as "inner landscapes, born of the delirium of the jungle," but then says that he's not sure if that's really it either.   The book covers the period from June 1979 through November 1981, and while it is filled with some of the struggles he endured while trying to get his movie off the ground, it is also a deeply personal account, suffused with his observations about the Amazon jungle, its people, the rivers, and his relationship with nature,  trying to find some insight into it all while trying to maintain a sense of calm as the leader of the enterprise.   

For anyone unfamiliar with the movie Fitzcarraldo, it is very loosely based on the story of a Peruvian rubber baron, Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald. As Herzog explains in Burden of Dreams, the director only cared about one part of Fitzcarrald's story, in which he dismantles a ship and moves it across an isthmus onto another part of the river. In Conquest of the Useless he reveals how he sees it:

"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, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong."
In Herzog's film Fitzcarraldo buys a ship and uses the native people who have joined him and his crew to move the ship up a steep slope to another part of the river where he can access his newly-bought rubber holdings, the profits of which he will use to realize his dream of building an opera house in Iquitos (a la the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus).   I won't go into any great detail here, but what I discovered in reading this book is that there are a number of similarities between Herzog and his character Fitzcarraldo, who is more than once referred to in the film as "the conquistador of the useless."  Both are dreamers, and both in their own way are lunatics, compelled by their visions.    As just one example, Herzog's backers assumed he'd use a model steamship, but no -- as he says here, he had to have a real one "being hauled over a real mountain" because it was stylistically characteristic of "grand opera."   In another entry from February 18, 1981, he goes so far to note the idea of playing Fitzcarraldo himself,  "because my project and character have become identical."  There is no greater truth in this book to be sure.  

One more thing I'll mention is the writing.  As I noted earlier, Conquest of the Useless is not simply a reconstruction of his time in the Amazon jungle while making the film, and Herzog's personal observations are beautifully conveyed through his prose. I noted one that I'll share here, made while he is in Belén near Christmas 1980:
"...Outside I looked down at the river for a long time, trying to regain some composure. Chatas, flat barges, are chugging along, carrying pipes for distant oil-drilling operations. Belén is partially under water. Today at daybreak the birds were pleading for the continued existence of the Creation. For them, anything but the continuation of the status quo is deadly. My watch has stopped now once and for all but for a long time I have been thinking in Amazonian terms anyway: before dinner, after the storm, toward evening. A blind, barefoot beggar was groping his way along the wall of a house. A woman was drinking water from an aluminum pot in which slimy fish from the river, with big eyes, were floating. One of them was dead, its underside white, belly up. Then a child drank from the pot."
 Having seen Fitzcarraldo before reading this book,  I wasn't surprised here at his ability to pick up on such detail, but I came away from Conquest of the Useless  with the conviction that his artistry went well beyond his directing skills. 

Of course, if you're interested in such details as his frustration with Klaus Kinski, or what it was like to work with Mick Jagger and Claudia Cardinale, that's here too, but this book reaches much deeper than a simple tell-all sort of thing.

highly recommended, even for people who haven't seen the movie, but you'll get much more from it if you do.