Conquest of the Useless: Reflections From the Making of 'Fitzcarraldo'

Werner Herzog

Reviewed by Audra Schroeder, Fri., Sept. 18, 2009

In Print

Conquest of the Useless: Reflections From the Making of 'Fitzcarraldo'

by Werner Herzog Ecco, 306 pp., $24.99

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."

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