Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo, by Werner Herzog. Ecco, June 2009. $24.99
Conquest of the Useless, the altogether appropriate title given to the journals Werner Herzog kept while making his most famous film in the Peruvian rainforest, weighs in at just over three hundred pages. Dense with the soakage of the jungle—“Nothing ever gets properly dry here, shoes, clothing. Anything made of leather gets mildewed, and electric clocks stop”—the pages of Conquest seem to weigh more than the pages of most books. As in one of Herzog’s slow-moving films, life comes across as a dark, viscous current through which people arduously wade: remember Kasper Hauser trying and failing to learn to walk as his father kicks the back of his feet, or Hombre, the bashful, good-natured midget in Even Dwarfs Started Small attempting unsuccessfully to climb onto a bed from every side, a spectacle which Herzog’s tenacious, unblinking camera refuses to let go of for a full two and half minutes. In the jungle, ordinary men become like dwarfs. The simplest tasks are protracted interminably, are transfigured into epics of non-consummation. Time itself seems distended.
This is quite as it should be, since Fitzcarraldo (1982) is a film all about heaviness. It is a film about standing up to gravity, and about what happens when you do. To summarize the plot without making it sound like a Russian proverb on futility is a challenge. In order to access a plentiful rubber territory, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (“Fitzcarraldo” to the natives), a ruthless yet big-hearted Irishman living in turn-of-the-century Peru, has to haul a steamship over a mountain. He succeeds! And yet he still doesn’t get his hands on all that rubber. On the other side of the mountain the Indians who helped him drag the boat, believing they are making a sacrifice that will banish the evil spirits that have plagued them from the beginning of time, release it into the Pongo de Muerte (the Rapids of Death) with Fitz asleep on board. His dream of building an opera house in the rain forest and inviting his hero Caruso to perform on the opening night is scotched, or at least this is how things stand at the film’s end.
In making the film, Herzog really did haul a 340-ton steamship over a mountain, flying in the face of 20th Century Fox, who had hoped he would settle for pulling a model ship over a ridge in the San Diego botanical gardens. Herzog was having none of it and employed seven hundred Campa Indians to move the ship via an elaborate pulley system. The spirit both of the film and of these journals is captured when he describes a rare moment of serenity after he and two of his crew members climb the lookout platform they have built at the highest point between the two rivers: “We were all alone with the jungle, floating gently above its steaming treetops, and I was no longer afraid at the thought of hauling a huge ship over the mountain ridge, even if everything in this gravity-ridden world seemed to argue against it.”
It seems inadequate to say that during the making of Fitzcarraldo everything that could possibly go wrong did. Everything that couldn’t go wrong somehow managed to go wrong as well. Not since King Lear—not since The Book of Job—have so many things gone wrong in so short a time. Most of the really spectacular catastrophes we already know about from Les Blank’s 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams, that Ring Cycle of mishap and misadventure. Pre-production had been underway for several months in Santa María de Nieva, Peru, when Herzog, sensing an imminent threat from the Peruvian military, which was just then gearing up for a small border war with Ecuador, decided to pull his crew out of the jungle. On December 1, 1979, armed Aguaruna Indians—aggravated by the encroachments of oil companies and government-subsidized Peruvian settlers—surrounded Herzog’s camp and told those remaining to leave immediately. As the camp burned to the ground, the last crewmembers fled down the Rio Marañón , waving white flags from their canoe.
Before things got better for Fitzcarraldo, they got worse. After several months Herzog found a new location—1,500 kilometers south, on the Rio Camisea—and at last began shooting. Forty percent of the film had been completed when Jason Robards, the actor playing Fitzcarraldo, contracted amoebic dysentery and was forced to return to the US, where his doctors forbade his return to Rio Camisea. Because of the delay this caused, Mick Jagger, who was playing Fitzcarraldo’s sidekick, Wilbur, dropped out to tour with the Rolling Stones. Herzog would have to find a new lead man, write Jagger’s character out of the script (according to Herzog, Jagger was “irreplaceable”), and start over from the very beginning. Inviting disaster, Herzog now chose to lead into the china shop of his exhausted, increasingly mutinous cast and crew the incendiary, egomaniacal, tantrum-prone bull that was Klaus Kinski, with whom Herzog had made three previous features. True to form, Kinski raved and foamed and sputtered his way through the film. At one point an Indian chief soberly offered to murder him. Herzog appreciated the gesture, but declined.
What Conquest lets us in on is the small catastrophes endlessly visited upon Herzog and his crew. It reveals the apparently limitless capacity of a man—I am tempted to say, of Man—to absorb disaster, and then to go on absorbing it: about halfway through Conquest the reader begins to feel as though, rather than reading a journal kept by Werner Herzog, he is watching a film starring Buster Keaton, so incessant, so unlikely, so ingenious are the mishaps that beset him. This is a Werner Herzog film: you expect mishaps to occur.
But what about this?:
Yesterday at four in the morning, while it was still dark, W. [Walter Saxer, the film’s producer] shook me awake to tell me that in half an hour a plane would be leaving for Lima. Still groggy with sleep, I jumped into my clothes, then into one shoe, then the other. But there seemed to be a sock bunched up in the shoe. I reached in to pull it out, and suddenly instead of a sock I was holding a tarantula, as big as my fist and hairy.
Our monkey escaped from his cage and is stealing things from the set table when no one’s there. He’s taken possession of almost all the forks. This morning he stole the milk bottle used by Gloria’s little daughter, and Gloria [Saxer’s Peruvian wife], saw him out in the bushes sucking on the nipple until the bottle was empty. She’s convinced the monkey will rape the baby, and she wants him shot before he does so.
And yet, as Churchill said of the drink, Herzog can fairly claim to have gotten more out of the jungle than the jungle got out of him. After all, he came away with Fitzcarraldo. However grim things become in Conquest there remains a virile, clear-eyed relish to the tone with which the author chronicles his experience. Indeed, it is interesting to observe how many of the vignettes collected here are quietly inflected with Herzog’s sense of his own defiant struggle against hostile external circumstances. He writes, “In the concourse at the airport [in Iquitos] a wounded hummingbird was fluttering along the polished floor, unable to get into the air. When it stopped moving, the shoeshine boys nudged it with their toes, and it glided in crazed, whirring paths along the ground.” Later, deep in the jungle, we get: “The dog was chasing the helicopter the way dogs sometimes chase a moving car, even though the draft from the rotor almost knocked it to the ground and was kicking up gravel at him. Then, at a slight distance, the dog lifted one leg and pissed in the direction of the helicopter.” You can’t help the feeling that Herzog, were he a dog, would have done the same.