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dimanche, 23 janvier 2011

Werner Herzog - Finding ecstatic truth


Werner Herzog — Finding ecstatic truth in the most extreme circumstances, embracing the world that is both brutal and chaotic

Werner Her­zog, Con­quest of the Use­less: Reflec­tions from the Mak­ing of Fitz­car­raldo, Trans. By Krishna Win­ston (Ecco, 2009)

by Lawrence Levi

 Ex: http://www.new-antaios.net/







One of the most revered film­mak­ers of our time, Werner Her­zog wrote this diary dur­ing the mak­ing of Fitz­car­raldo, the lav­ish 1982 film that tells the story of a would-be rub­ber baron who pulls a steamship over a hill in order to access a rich rub­ber ter­ri­tory. Later, Her­zog spoke of his dif­fi­cul­ties when mak­ing the film, includ­ing cast­ing prob­lems, reshoots, lan­guage bar­ri­ers, epic clashes with the star, and the logis­tics of mov­ing a 320-ton steamship over a hill with­out the use of spe­cial effects.”

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in the noted director’s native Ger­many in 2004, Herzog’s diary, more prose poetry than jour­nal entries, will appeal even to those unfa­mil­iar with the extrav­a­gant 1982 film. From June 1979 to Novem­ber 1981, Her­zog recounted not only the par­tic­u­lars of shoot­ing the dif­fi­cult film about a fic­tional rub­ber baron—which included the famous sequence of a steamer ship being maneu­vered over a hill from one river to another—but also the dream­like qual­ity of life in the Ama­zon. Famous faces swim in and out of focus, notably Mick Jag­ger, in a part that ended up on the cut­ting room floor, and the eccen­tric actor Klaus Kin­ski, who con­stantly berated the direc­tor after step­ping into the title role that Jason Robards had quit. Fas­ci­nated by the wildlife that sur­rounded him in the iso­lated Peru­vian jun­gle, Her­zog details every­thing from the omnipresent insect life to pira­nhas that could bite off a man’s toe. Those who haven’t encoun­tered Her­zog on screen will undoubt­edly be drawn in by the director’s lyri­cism, while cinephiles will rel­ish the oppor­tu­nity to retrace the steps of one of the medium’s mas­ters.” — Pub­lish­ers Weekly

“As the book makes abun­dantly clear, this isn’t the jun­gle pro­moted by orga­niz­ers of eco-tours: It’s a place of absur­dity, cru­elty and squalor; of incom­pe­tence and grotes­query; of poi­so­nous snakes and insects from a fever dream; of Indi­ans armed with poi­soned arrows and Indi­ans who craftily use the media. Haz­ards abound: greedy offi­cials, deranged actors and drunken helpers… What tran­spires in the jun­gle, com­bined with his native astrin­gency, moves [Her­zog] to a cur­dled poetry, to ecstasies of loathing and dis­gust… Much of Herzog’s focus here is intensely phys­i­cal, but he is also an imag­i­na­tive cul­tural observer.” — San Fran­cisco Chronicle

…the befogged inter­nal swirl of Herzog’s mind becomes an improb­a­bly apt van­tage point from which to view the his­tory of Fitz­car­raldo. For all his mad­den­ing opacity…Herzog ren­ders a vivid por­trait of him­self as an artist hyp­no­tized by his own deter­mined imag­i­na­tion.” — Mark Har­ris

fitzcarraldo.jpgThe jour­nal entries that make up this dis­arm­ingly poetic mem­oir were penned over the course of the two and a half years it took Her­zog to make his film Fitz­car­raldo, for which he won the best direc­tor award at Cannes in 1982. Herzog’s earthy and atmos­pheric descrip­tions of the Ama­zon jun­gle and the Natives who live there among wild and domes­ti­cated ani­mals in heavy, humid weather con­jure a civ­i­liza­tion indif­fer­ent to the rhythms of moder­nity. The impos­si­ble odds that con­spired to stop pro­duc­tion of the film and the sheer obsti­nacy it took to attempt it in the rain for­est instead of a stu­dio par­al­lel the plot of the film itself: with the help of local Natives, Fitz­car­raldo pulls a steamship over a steep hill to access rub­ber so he can earn enough money to build an opera house in the jun­gle. Her­zog has made over 50 films dur­ing his pro­lific career.” — Donna L. Davey

The acclaimed director’s diary of his time mak­ing Fitz­car­raldo (1982). From the begin­ning, the film faced more chal­lenges and uncer­tain­ties than most of Herzog’s other movies, and he com­posed a lengthy list that ended with the grim fore­cast that it could “be added to indef­i­nitely.” Film­ing had to start anew after Jason Robards, the orig­i­nal lead and an actor Her­zog came to scorn, aban­doned the project halfway through due to ill­ness, and Mick Jag­ger, set to play the lead character’s assis­tant, had to drop out to go on tour. When film­ing restarted, it was with Ger­man actor Klaus Kin­ski, a rav­ing, unhinged pres­ence in these journals-his volatil­ity so alarmed the locals that they qui­etly asked the direc­tor if he wanted Kin­ski killed. Then there were the night­mar­ish logis­tics of the famous scene where a steamship is dragged over a small hill in the jun­gle, from one river to another. Her­zog insisted that, as the cen­tral metaphor of the film, the event must be recorded with­out any com­pro­mise. (Much of the behind-the-scenes drama is recorded in Les Blank’s doc­u­men­tary Bur­den of Dreams.) Herzog’s jour­nals effec­tively map the director’s dis­lo­ca­tion and lone­li­ness, but they also high­light his unique imag­i­na­tion and the pro­found effect the remote Peru­vian loca­tion had on him. The writ­ing is haunted by what Her­zog came to see as the mis­ery of the jun­gle, a place where “all the pro­por­tions are off.” He slept fit­fully, when at all, and there is a hal­lu­ci­na­tory qual­ity to the journals-the line between what is real and what is imag­ined becomes nearly invis­i­ble. Recorded daily, with occa­sional gaps and frag­ments, Herzog’s reflec­tions are dis­qui­et­ing but also urgent and compelling-as he notes, “it’s onlythrough writ­ing that I come to my senses.“A valu­able his­tor­i­cal record and a strangely styl­ish, hyp­notic lit­er­ary work.” — Kirkus Reviews

“The film­ing of Werner Herzog’s 1982 epic, Fitz­car­raldo, in the Ama­zon­ian depths of Peru seemed myth­i­cally doomed from its incep­tion, some­thing chron­i­cled that same year in the doc­u­men­tary Bur­den of Dreams. The tit­u­lar char­ac­ter, fueled by the vol­canic ego of Klaus Kin­ski, wants to build an opera house in the wilds of Iqui­tos but first must get a 300-ton steam­boat over a moun­tain. The Ger­man director’s per­sonal jour­nal from the marathon two-year shoot offers another angle, and it’s no sur­prise his entries are exquis­itely detailed. Most of his films toe the same fine line – obses­sion and insan­ity – so nat­u­rally, he car­ried Fitzcarraldo’s bur­den.
It’s not explicit if, years later when he decided to trans­late and pub­lish this, Her­zog took a revisionist’s scalpel to his time in Peru. In the pref­ace, he states it wasn’t a day-to-day diary of film­ing but rather “inner land­scapes, born of the delir­ium of the jun­gle.” Through­out Con­quest, Her­zog is repeat­edly dis­gusted by the jungle’s per­ver­sity and silent, seething “mal­ice,” yet strangely amused by its dirty jokes.
Those highs and lows coil as one. For his dry reflec­tions (“When you shoot an ele­phant, it stays on its feet for 10 days before it falls over”) and pangs of jun­gle hatred, there are equally beau­ti­ful scenes, as when Her­zog thinks he feels an earth­quake: “For a moment the coun­try­side quiv­ered and shook, and my ham­mock began to sway gen­tly.” Her­zog and Kinski’s tumul­tuous friend­ship is touched on, but not as deeply as in the great 1999 doc­u­men­tary My Best Fiend. Her­zog mostly ignores the actor’s pro­jec­tile inso­lence on set, though he does move him to a hotel when per­turbed natives offer to kill him.
Else­where, a man chops off his own foot after a snakebite; a Peru­vian gen­eral snaps and declares war on Ecuador; Her­zog slaps an albino turkey; birds “scream” rather than sing, and insects look pre­his­toric; planes crash and limbs are split open. He sounds amaz­ingly calm within these fevered inner land­scapes – per­haps writ­ing was ther­apy – but knows pre­serv­ing his­tory is impor­tant to myth. The crew, vic­to­ri­ous, finally gets the boat over the moun­tain, and Her­zog gets in one last joke. “All that is to be reported is this: I took part.” — Audra Schroeder

“A crazed epic about a rub­ber baron who drags a steamship across an Ama­zon­ian moun­tain range, Werner Herzog’s Fitz­car­raldo (1981) set the bar absurdly high for cin­e­matic real­ism. (There would be no spe­cial effects used.) Per­haps even more hair-raising were the sto­ries that emerged from that shoot, includ­ing Peru­vian bor­der dis­putes, manic rages from actor Klaus Kin­ski and an unfor­tu­nate cin­e­matog­ra­pher for­got­ten overnight on a roar­ing rapids. Les Blank’s doc­u­men­tary of the mak­ing of the film, Bur­den of Dreams, is arguably supe­rior to Fitz­car­raldo itself.
Now comes a third nar­ra­tive, direc­tor Herzog’s pri­vate jour­nals, first pub­lished in Ger­many in 2004 and finally arriv­ing state­side. Con­quest of the Use­less (from a line of dia­logue in the film) adds sig­nif­i­cant details to the big­ger pic­ture, but also stands alone as a com­pellingly gonzo piece of reportage. Shrewdly omit­ting the better-known mis­ad­ven­tures, Her­zog focuses on his own deter­mi­na­tion and lone­li­ness. And why not? It’s a diary. We start in the cush sur­round­ings of Fran­cis Coppola’s San Fran­cisco man­sion, circa the release of Apoc­a­lypse Now. Her­zog toils on his script in the guest room while Sofia plays in the pool. A month later, he’s in Iqui­tos, Peru, observ­ing ani­mals as they eat each other.
As a read, Con­quest flies along—but not because it’s espe­cially plotty. Rather, it gath­ers its kick from the spec­ta­cle of a celebrity direc­tor escap­ing the late-’70s famescape into his own obses­sions. Meet­ings with Mick Jag­ger are far less wild than Herzog’s mor­dant curios­ity at the steamy rain for­est and his vivid descent into what he calls the “great abyss of night.” When a local Peru­vian fears the camera’s theft of his soul, Her­zog tells him there’s no need to worry, but pri­vately admits he’s lying.” — Joshua Rothkopf


“I am fas­ci­nated by Werner Herzog’s philo­soph­i­cal approach to life, and what he refers to as ecsta­tic truth. His early film­mak­ing roughly cor­re­sponds to the New Ger­man Cin­ema, a move­ment which sought to acti­vate new ways to rep­re­sent and dis­cuss cul­ture and real­ity. Ecsta­tic truth, as an idea, remains true to this bold and pro­gres­sive ambi­tion, hop­ing to cap­ture a sense of real­ity that goes beyond straight­for­ward empir­i­cal facts, or the con­tem­po­rary con­ven­tions of Euro­pean cin­ema.
Instead, ecsta­tic truth is a kind of spir­i­tual affir­ma­tion that exists between the lines, or behind the super­fi­cial gloss of the on-screen images; and yet it is not spir­i­tual in any the­o­log­i­cal sense, nor does it adhere to any cul­tural set of beliefs. To bor­row a phrase from the title of Alan Yentob’s BBC doc­u­men­tary on Her­zog, it is a truth ‘beyond rea­son’: highly sub­jec­tive and deeply per­sonal.
For me, what is most inter­est­ing about Herzog’s work is that he seeks to find a sense of ecsta­tic truth in the most extreme cir­cum­stances. Per­haps this is the only place it can be found, if it is to exist at all. His films are often struc­tured around char­ac­ters who are in some way at odds with the world, strangers in a uni­verse divested of mean­ing and sur­rounded by ‘chaos, hos­til­ity and mur­der’. It sounds like a very fatal­is­tic, Ger­manic philo­soph­i­cal approach, but I think that to dis­miss it as neg­a­tive or nihilis­tic is to miss Herzog’s point.
The con­cept of ecsta­tic truth ties into a loose cul­tural idea of spir­i­tual enlight­en­ment and indi­vid­ual empow­er­ment, but it is with­out sen­ti­ment or naive ide­al­ism. It is a way of look­ing at the world as both bru­tal and chaotic, but embrac­ing those qual­i­ties in nature for what they are. It accepts that humankind can­not dom­i­nate or con­trol nature as such, but is enthu­si­as­tic about the engage­ment. On the set of Fitz­car­raldo, deep in the jun­gle, Her­zog speaks of the ‘obscen­ity of the jun­gle’, stat­ing that even ‘the stars look like a mess’, and yet, in spite of this, he con­tin­ues to love and admire the nature that sur­rounds him — per­haps ‘against [his] bet­ter judg­ment’.
Ecsta­tic truth does not imply secu­rity or sta­bil­ity, there are no great dis­cov­er­ies and no guar­an­tees of empir­i­cal knowl­edge: in this sense it is a nec­es­sary con­quest of the use­less, a jour­ney with no sign­posts or des­ti­na­tions. It is a con­tin­ual task, under­taken not for the ben­e­fit of mankind but for the ben­e­fit of one­self. And I think that there is some­thing per­versely roman­tic and aspi­ra­tional about Herzog’s approach; in many ways it feels rem­i­nis­cent of Niet­zsche roam­ing the wild moun­tains and find­ing peace in the wilder­ness.
To seek one’s indi­vid­ual sense of truth among the ele­ments is surely as noble a project as any, and many of Werner Herzog’s films seem to be pur­su­ing exactly that kind of philo­soph­i­cal aim: it is an attempt to cre­ate one’s place in the uni­verse, or, as Her­zog puts it, to con­tin­u­ally search for ‘a deeper stra­tum of truth’ about one­self and the wider world.” — Rhys Tran­ter

The 64-year-old Ger­man film­maker Werner Her­zog has long been as famous for his state­ments about film and cul­ture as he has been for his actual movies. In speech and in writ­ing, he inclines to apho­rism rather than argu­ment, issu­ing dicta with a her­metic self-containment bor­der­ing on the inscrutable. The 300-page Her­zog on Her­zog (2002) reads this way, as does his 12-point “Min­nesota Dec­la­ra­tion”, an impromptu man­i­festo deliv­ered at the Walker Arts Cen­ter in Min­neapo­lis in 1999. Herzog’s apho­risms teeter between the vision­ary and the bizarre, as these two points of the “Dec­la­ra­tion” attest:

5. There are deeper strata of truth in cin­ema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecsta­tic truth. It is mys­te­ri­ous and elu­sive, and can be reached only through fab­ri­ca­tion and imag­i­na­tion and styl­iza­tion.
10. The moon is dull. Mother Nature doesn’t call, doesn’t speak to you, although a glac­ier even­tu­ally farts. And don’t you lis­ten to the Song of Life.‘

Her­zog has become an object of cin­e­matic fas­ci­na­tion in his own right. Direc­tor Les Blank has made two doc­u­men­taries star­ring his col­league: Bur­den of Dreams (1982) fol­lows the mak­ing of Herzog’s Fitz­car­raldo, and Werner Her­zog Eats His Shoe (1980) fea­tures Her­zog cook­ing and devour­ing a leather boot while deliv­er­ing pro­nounce­ments on the near-extinction of imag­i­na­tion, the need for artis­tic dar­ing, and the dif­fer­ence between fact and truth. The col­lec­tive word count of Herzog’s pro­nounce­ments about art and cul­ture prob­a­bly exceeds the words spo­ken by his char­ac­ters onscreen (despite a pro­lific 55-film career). A mas­ter of ele­gant strange­ness, Her­zog has prof­ited by this canny abil­ity to expound and prac­tice an artis­tic phi­los­o­phy.
Once again, Her­zog has man­aged to have his shoe and eat it, too. In Con­quest of the Use­less: Reflec­tions from the Mak­ing of Fitz­car­raldo, Her­zog pub­lishes the diary he kept from 1979 to 1981 while shoot­ing (or, more often, wait­ing to shoot) his acclaimed film about a bom­bas­tic anti-hero in the Brazil­ian jun­gle. Thanks to Les Blank’s Bur­den of Dreams, the plagued his­tory of Fitz­car­raldo already holds a noto­ri­ous place in film­mak­ing mythol­ogy: assis­tants died; actors became injured and ill; some of the local extras plot­ted to kill hot-blooded star Klaus Kin­ski. Typ­i­cally, Her­zog took these inci­dents as cos­mic por­tents, telling Blank: “The trees here are in mis­ery. The birds here are in mis­ery – I don’t think they sing; they just screech in pain.” The essence of the jun­gle is “for­ni­ca­tion and asphyx­i­a­tion and chok­ing and fight­ing for sur­vival and grow­ing and just rot­ting away”.
A dar­ling of cineasts and prize com­mit­tees, Werner Her­zog is savvier than the humor­less neu­rotic he some­times plays on-screen and in his jour­nals. He is fully aware of the car­toon­ish­ness of his morose Weltan­schau­ung, but seems to rel­ish sit­u­at­ing him­self at the junc­ture of com­edy, melo­drama, and nihilism. Of Con­quest of the Useless’s 320 pages, this sort of vague cos­mo­log­i­cal pes­simism prob­a­bly accounts for some 50. The book finally shifts from being very funny (though we are never sure whether Her­zog is an accom­plice or an object of our laugh­ter) to slightly dull.
That said, Con­quest of the Use­less is a sin­gu­lar book, so strong at many points that it could be read and appre­ci­ated by some­one who had never seen a sin­gle Her­zog film. In Werner Her­zog Eats His Shoe, Her­zog says: “Our civ­i­liza­tion doesn’t have ade­quate images… That’s what I’m work­ing on: a new gram­mar of images.” With­out them, he says, we are doomed to “die out like dinosaurs.”
In con­trast with this “new gram­mar of images”, Her­zog sets the false images offered by tele­vi­sion and adver­tise­ments. These “kill us” and “kill our lan­guage” because they lull instead of pro­voke, work­ing within a famil­iar spec­trum of won­der, desire, and repul­sion. Herzog’s films can be inter­preted as anti­dotes to this dead­en­ing com­pla­cency, and the count­less strange moments in Con­quest of the Use­less as yet another cura­tive, this time through the medium of lan­guage.
The book’s images of grotesque sur­re­al­ism arrive abruptly amidst more mun­dane descrip­tions of weather or squab­bling actors. In a sud­den, pecu­liar flash they sug­gest whole worlds abut­ting Herzog’s, yet with utterly dif­fer­ent codes of behav­ior, stores of knowl­edge, and inter­pre­ta­tions of real­ity. In “Iqui­tos” a tiny boy named Modus Vivendi earns a liv­ing play­ing the vio­lin at funer­als. Chil­dren steal a bit of sound tape from Herzog’s crew and tie it between two trees, so tight that the wind makes it “hum and sing.” At fes­ti­vals men shoot each other with bows and arrows, the recip­i­ent catch­ing the shaft midair before it hits its mark. A large moth sits on Herzog’s dirty laun­dry and “feasts on the salt from [his] sweat.” In the crew’s ship­ment of pro­vi­sions they order kilos of arrow-tip poi­son, which serves as local cur­rency. “For a spoon­ful of this black sticky mass, you can get your­self a woman to marry, I was told in a respect­ful whis­per by a boat­man as he cleaned his toes with a screw­driver.” Such sur­prises exem­plify the new­ness to Herzog’s “gram­mar of images”, a new­ness that is not sim­ply indica­tive of their shock value but illus­tra­tive of a vora­cious curios­ity about how other beings sur­vive, and some­times enjoy, their pas­sage through the world.
In Con­quest of the Use­less, Her­zog may have stum­bled across the genre to which his writ­ing is best suited. The jour­nal form pro­vides an inher­ent struc­ture, in which sea­sons change, per­son­al­i­ties clash and rec­on­cile and clash again, and bud­gets dwin­dle. All Her­zog has to do from time to time is log the cur­rent con­di­tions of all these fac­tors, and the drama writes itself. This sin­gle lin­ear struc­ture is steady and com­pre­hen­si­ble enough to accom­mo­date a great deal of eccen­tric­ity and diva­ga­tion, and the reader never feels mired in the wash of sur­real imagery and quasi-philosophic mus­ing. With entries aver­ag­ing three or four para­graphs, few feel over­stuffed with detail.
When Her­zog sim­ply shows what’s there, the result is breath­tak­ing, and even a reader unac­quainted with Herzog’s work could imag­ine why Fran­cois Truf­faut called him “the great­est film direc­tor alive”. What spoils some of these images, how­ever, is Herzog’s occa­sional habit of gloss­ing or inter­pret­ing them for us. This can result in cringe-worthy pur­ple prose: “In its all-encompassing, mas­sive mis­ery, of which it has no knowl­edge and no hint of a notion, the mighty jun­gle stood com­pletely still for another night, which, how­ever, true to its inner­most nature, it didn’t allow to go unused for incred­i­ble destruc­tion, incred­i­ble butch­ery.”
Fit­ting this “gram­mar of images” into an argu­ment or phi­los­o­phy is often mis­guided. Herzog’s attempts at artic­u­lat­ing a con­vinc­ing credo fail, but his ren­der­ing of the world’s strange par­tic­u­lars achieves the “ecsta­tic truth” which for him is both the aim and the con­tent of art. Her­zog schol­ars will per­haps read Con­quest of the Use­less with the goal of sup­ple­ment­ing their under­stand­ing of his aston­ish­ing films. Doing so risks over­look­ing the value of Con­quest as a work of art itself. The plea­sures of the word are dif­fer­ent from the plea­sures of the cam­era. Herzog’s strange and orig­i­nal voice, by medi­at­ing a place and mood through lan­guage rather than footage, pro­vides yet another new gram­mar by which imag­i­na­tion speaks.” — Laura Kolbe
“This is what “a beau­ti­ful, fresh, sunny morn­ing” was like for Werner Her­zog dur­ing the Sisyphean mis­eries that plagued the shoot­ing of his Ama­zon­ian epic “Fitz­car­raldo” (1982): one of two newly hatched chicks drowned in a saucer con­tain­ing only a few mil­lime­ters of water. The other lost a leg and a piece of its stom­ach to a mur­der­ous rab­bit. And Mr. Her­zog real­ized, for the umpteenth time, that “a sense of des­o­la­tion was tear­ing me up inside, like ter­mites in a fallen tree trunk.”
These and other good times have been immor­tal­ized in “Con­quest of the Use­less,” Mr. Herzog’s jour­nal about his best-known film­mak­ing night­mare. Already pub­lished in Ger­man as the evoca­tively titled “Eroberung des Nut­zlosen” in 2004, this book, trans­lated by Krishna Win­ston, seem­ingly reca­pit­u­lates some of Les Blank’s film “Bur­den of Dreams,” the 1982 doc­u­men­tary that cap­tured the “Fitz­car­raldo” shoot in all of its mag­nif­i­cent, doomy glory. When he spoke to Mr. Blank, Mr. Her­zog used the phrase “chal­lenge of the impos­si­ble” to describe his heroic, arguably unhinged strug­gle to com­plete his film.
But “Bur­den of Dreams” never pen­e­trated Mr. Herzog’s rogue thoughts, at least not in the way his own mes­mer­iz­ingly bizarre account does. That’s under­stand­able: Mr. Blank could con­cen­trate on such exter­nal diver­sions as haul­ing a steamship over a hill in the Ama­zon rain for­est, which was the pièce de résis­tance of Mr. Herzog’s “Fitz­car­raldo” sce­nario.
The obser­va­tions to be found in “Con­quest of the Use­less” are much more pri­vate and piti­less, as Mr. Her­zog finds evi­dence of an indif­fer­ent uni­verse wher­ever he turns. With the same bleak elo­quence that he brings to nar­rat­ing his non­fic­tion films (and what voice can match Mr. Herzog’s for mourn­fully con­tem­pla­tive beauty?) this book describes the exot­ica of the jun­gle. Obsessed with the bird, ani­mal and insect worlds as a way of avoid­ing the human one, Mr. Her­zog keeps a steady record of the per­verse spec­ta­cles he encoun­ters.
It’s always per­sonal: fire ants rain down upon him spite­fully. Hens treat him dif­fi­dently. A cobra stares him down. Amaz­ingly Mr. Her­zog becomes so emo­tion­ally involved with a “vain” albino turkey that in a moment of pique he slaps the bird “left-right with the casual ele­gance of the arro­gant cav­a­liers I had seen in French Mus­ke­teer films.” Per­haps that offers some mea­sure of just how intensely and anthro­po­mor­phi­cally Mr. Her­zog can inter­act with his sur­round­ings.
Even inan­i­mate objects (“has any­one heard rocks sigh?”) become part of the drama rec­ol­lected in these pages. So a broom “is lying on the ground as if felled by an assas­sin.” A book leaves Mr. Her­zog feel­ing so lonely that he buries it. No event from day­break (“the birds were plead­ing for the con­tin­ued exis­tence of the Cre­ation”) to night­fall (“the universe’s light sim­ply burns out, and then it is gone”) is any­thing but fraught. In this con­text one man’s plan to haul a steamship over­land between two rivers becomes as rea­son­able as any­thing else.
As “Con­quest of the Use­less” reveals, Mr. Her­zog is as canny about the film world as he is about the nat­ural one. And he knows that he needs both to sus­tain him. Still, he sounds hap­pi­est while liv­ing in self-imposed exile from those who con­trol his film’s finan­cial des­tiny. And he is scathing about any col­lab­o­ra­tors who do not share his love of risk-taking.
Jason Robards, orig­i­nally cast in the title role, becomes an object of scorch­ing deri­sion because he seems fear­ful of the jun­gle. To Mr. Her­zog, cow­ardice is a par­tic­u­larly despi­ca­ble sin.
The book speaks bit­terly about the “appalling inner empti­ness” of Mr. Robards in ways that make it no sur­prise that Mr. Her­zog soon replaces him. And “Fitz­car­raldo” also loses Mick Jag­ger, for whom Mr. Her­zog has far higher regard, once it becomes clear that mak­ing this film will take years. In a diary that spans two and a half years and details assorted calami­ties, Mr. Her­zog even­tu­ally becomes more com­fort­able when his old neme­sis, the tantrum-throwing mad­man Klaus Kin­ski (who starred in Mr. Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”) steps in.
Although “Con­quest of the Use­less” pro­vides a hyp­notic chron­i­cle of the film crew’s daily progress, it inevitably heats up when Mr. Kin­ski arrives. No malev­o­lent taran­tula in the rain for­est can match this vol­cani­cally hot-tempered actor for enter­tain­ment value. And the Kin­ski pres­ence brings out the best in Mr. Herzog’s invec­tive. Com­plain­ing con­stantly about his star’s diva­like behav­ior — Mr. Her­zog pre­dicts there will be trou­ble when the steamship becomes more impor­tant to the film than its lead­ing man is, and of course he’s right — Mr. Her­zog is nonethe­less invig­o­rated by col­lab­o­ra­tive con­flict.
Still, he per­fectly under­stands a dis­creet ques­tion asked by some of the local Indi­ans: Does Mr. Her­zog want this rav­ing, scream­ing, fit-pitching actor taken off his hands? In other words, should the Indi­ans kill him? By this point in “Con­quest of the Use­less” that inquiry seems plau­si­ble: Mr. Her­zog has described the con­stant deadly peril of jun­gle life, at one point cit­ing the deaths of two Indi­ans within three pages. And the loss of one shriek­ing blond Euro­pean might not be such an aber­ra­tion.
But Mr. Her­zog would, as ever, pre­fer a sur­pris­ing obser­va­tion to an obvi­ous one. He decides that the Indi­ans must find the Her­zog tenac­ity much scarier than the Kin­ski oper­at­ics.
Any book by Mr. Her­zog (like “Of Walk­ing in Ice,” his slen­der vol­ume about a 1974 walk from Munich to Paris) turns his devo­tees into cryp­tog­ra­phers. It is ever tempt­ing to try to fathom his rest­less spirit and his deter­mi­na­tion to chal­lenge fate. Among the oddly reveal­ing details in “Con­quest of the Use­less” is Mr. Herzog’s descrip­tion of the gift from him that most delighted his mother: sand, which she liked to use for scrub­bing. As he suf­fers through the tra­vails described in this book, he is very much his mother’s son.” — Janet Maslin

“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.”

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