Conquest of the Useless by Werner Herzog


Werner Herzog’s poetic, fever-dream account of the making of ‘Fitzcaraldo’ his most famous film, in which a mad opera lover ( and also, of course, the filmmakers) pulled a boat over a mountain in the Amazon jungle.

The book is based on his diary entries during the long and arduous process of making this strange vision a reality.

It vividly describes, in a different way to the film, life in the jungle — a kind of dreary fecund existence. You can almost smell the rotten fruit and feel the mud, damp and humidity. It’s all very Heart of Darkness and the language and concerns are distinctively Herzog-ian. Ecstatic truths, headless chickens, the raving of Klaus Kinski, the mundane evils of nature…

‘When you shoot an elephant, it stays on its feet for ten days before it falls over.’

‘In the light of the moon, which is not even half full, your own body casts a clear shadow, which obediently shrinks when you tell it to heel.’

The book also gives a flavour (from the most extreme end of the spectrum) of the organised anarchy that is film making. The kind of insane-ness you have to posses in order to convince sceptics to partake in a vision only you can see. Everything becomes a means to an end — the ecstatic and pointless vision of a ship traversing a mountain and nothing and no one can stand in the way of that vision.

There are a lot of insane egos and crazy accidents that radiate around Herzog and he paints himself as calm and rational through it all, even at times of immense stress and lack of sleep, sometimes I found this version of himself hard to believe. Surely no one can be that calm in the face of such chaos?

His strange obsession seems to me a metaphor for the creative insanity of humans and of life itself too – there is a definite connection between the rows of fire ants endlessly carrying things along without quite knowing why – and the crew pulling these (two!) ships and equipment around in the same way.

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