Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Conquest of the Useless

Publisher: ECCO PRESS
Year: 2009

Between 1979 and 1982 Werner Herzog embarked on an epic filmmaking odyssey in the inhospitable and will sapping confines of the Peruvian jungle. The outcome was the film Fitzcarraldo, most famous for an extended sequence in which the titular character played by Klaus Kinski takes advantage of tribal myths and persuades hundreds of Indians to help him drag a steamship over a mountain. Herzog insisted on performing this without the aid of special effects, fake boats or on a set - depending on your view the metaphorical significance of this act defined the visionary nature of the film or was just the folly of an unhinged megalomaniac. The difficulties the filmmakers faced is now the stuff of legend and were documented heavily in the press coverage of the time and in the documentary Burden of Dreams (1982) directed by Les Blank. But over a quarter of a century later Herzog himself has chosen to wade in with is own interpretation of the madness in the jungle, by publishing his diaries of the whole experience. Perhaps Herzog is aware that his stock has risen to its pinnacle in recent years thanks to Grizzly Man (2005) and Rescue Dawn (2006), and there does seem a bit of opportunism about publishing a book about events that are so well documented in other sources. However it soon becomes clear that Herzog’s eloquent turn of phrase and penchant for bizarre similes will afford the reader a unique experience.

The actual filming process is given very little attention in a book which seeks to address the internal difficulties faced by Herzog in Peru. Herzog is often a useless bystander overcome by the magnitude of his undertaking, and one marvels at how he managed to pull everything together and make a film that succeeds on a number of levels. The real war in this book is between Herzog and nature, and the trivial and hypocritical disagreements between Ecuador and Peru, and between the Indians and the oil companies pale in comparison to the existential nightmare Herzog experiences. Perhaps Herzog could be accused of under-researching the area, of not paying greater attention to the simmering tensions that existed, but this is a portrait of an artist clutching desperately to a dream, and Herzog emphasises the importance of dreams to such a degree that everything else is made to look small and petty. Almost every aspect of nature is personified by Herzog, the jungle and the weather are conspirators, a hated enemy to be overcome. Herzog’s attention to insects, pigs, turkeys and chickens mirrors Les Blank’s own awareness of nature in Burden of Dreams, except here they are figures of revulsion and evil. The book also becomes a document of poverty as Herzog describes in graphic detail the difficulties of everyday life for the native population. This is a world of death, decay and disease, but a world also in which such major events do battle with uselessness and triviality.

Herzog is at his best when ranting about the pampered Jason Robards who left the film and was replaced by Klaus Kinski. Despite the natural sparks that fly between Herzog and his nemesis, it is clear that the arrival of Kinski is the inspiration Herzog needs to continue with filming. Kinski would go on to undermine that inspiration, but one gets the sense that Herzog is far more comfortable around Kinski‘s maniacal raving than he is the pampered moaning of Hollywood stars. When the steamship is finally lifted to the summit of the small mountain, Herzog feels only emptiness and uselessness. The grandiose image of opera that forms a collective dream for us all is rendered pointless and the act of filmmaking itself is called into question amid death and poverty. This is a fascinating, if somewhat repetitive read. Herzog goes on about nature and the jungle a lot, and once his view has been formulated we don’t really need endless descriptions of animals doing odd things. Perhaps it is due to German being Herzog’s first language that we get the odd turn of phrases, but they never unbalance what is ultimately a fascinating account of filmmaking, dreams and borderline insanity.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. There is a really good DVD release of Burden of Dreams by Criterion. It also contains the short 20 minute film Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe, a 40 minute interview with Herzog and Les Blank's diaries written during the making of Fitzcarraldo - it might be deleted now, but you should be able to pick it up on the Amazon Marketplace or Ebay for a reasonable price.


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