Our homage to Herzog's "obscene" jungle (see below)
The making of Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, which tells the story of an opera lover obsessively intent on amassing a fortune in rubber in order to build an opera house in the Amazon jungle, has been documented in Les Blank’s documentary The Burden of Dreams. In that film, Fitzcarraldo’s quest is conflated with Herzog’s – using only primitive tools, both men attempt to haul a 360-ton ship over a steep slope from one river to another. After watching the documentary, the viewer is justified in wondering if the mad one is the fictional Fitzcarraldo or the implacable Herzog.
The shooting of Fitzcarraldo was plagued from its inception by a series of disasters – threats of war and rumors about Herzog’s true intentions in the jungle nearly stopped production before it even began. Plane crashes (yes, plural); attacks by hostile tribes; severe illnesses; deserting actors; financial difficulties; a malevolent, inhospitable jungle that seemed intent on eradicating all human life; and even death disrupted filming once underway. Through it all Herzog remained unshakable, certain that to abandon the project would be a “disgrace so great that sin itself wouldn’t be able to find a name for it”.
The Conquest of the Useless is composed of the diary Herzog kept during the making the film. He claims to have been unable to look at the diary for 25 years; such was the toll the process took. I don’t need to proselytize to a Herzog admirer (those who have watched him eat his shoe, or know the legendary story of how he pulled Joaquin Pheonix from a car wreck), but for those with little knowledge or only casual interest in the man or his films, I will make my pitch for why I believe this work should be read by more than film buffs (which I do not consider myself):
The Conquest of the Useless may not be a light read. It demands attention and possibly courage to read it. I will attest, however, that its riches are immeasurable. It lays bare the doubts, fears and psychological fortitude of one of the great artists and noble dreamers of our time. Herzog’s vivid descriptions of the jungle, its indigenous inhabitants and a rapidly vanishing world rival that of the best travel writer or journalist. His prose is clear and often downright funny. (The absurdity of his situation was not lost on Herzog.) It is in many respects a classic adventure story, complete with something resembling a happy ending….
Above all, it speaks to the conflicted dreamer in all of us that cries out for us to attempt our own impossible conquest, whatever the cost. It’s not every day that a book comes along that promises that. Especially not a book that is guaranteed.