Werner Herzog

Conquest of the Useless

By Werner Herzog; translated from the German by Krishna Winst (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2009)

In the annals of moviemaking catastrophe--from Apocalypse Now to Cleopatra to Heaven’s Gate to Waterworld--perhaps no famously troubled production has been more copiously documented than Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.

Maybe it’s because, in that case, the making-of really is more interesting than the movie itself. Or maybe it’s because they tell the same story. Fitzcarraldo is a tale of one man’s nearly ruinous obsession with bringing opera to the Amazon jungle. Its backstory is a tale of one man’s nearly ruinous obsession with the first man’s obsession. So the annotation of Herzog’s 1982 movie, much of it from the filmmaker himself, just seems to flow like a--well, like a great, majestically indifferent tropical river.

You’ll find it in Herzog’s commentary on the Fitzcarraldo DVD. And in his 1999 documentary My Best Fiend, about his nutso leading man and nemesis Klaus Kinski. You’ll find a lot of it in Les Blank and Maureen Gosling’s exceptional documentary, Burden of Dreams, whose Criterion Collection DVD edition even comes with a book gathering Blank and Gosling’s journals from their experience of Herzog’s production. And now you can read the maestro’s own journal of the event, Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo, originally published in 2004 and newly available in English from Ecco Press.

In his preface, Herzog writes: “These texts are not reports on the actual filming--of which little is said. Nor are they journals, except in a very general sense. They might be described instead as inner landscapes, born of the delirium of the jungle. But even that may not be entirely accurate--I am not sure.”

Uh, OK. And after 306 pages, he doesn’t seem much surer. Could anyone else get away with this? The book covers a very dreamlike two and a half years, through which Herzog remains mesmerized by his own restless tenacity. Only the most committed readers will do likewise, of course, but that’s exactly how the empathy of obsession is supposed to work.

Herzog’s narrating voice is an acquired taste. (Here’s his entry from July 20, 1979, in its entirety: “San Francisco. Emptiness.”) But you already knew that. The real fun to be had with Conquest of the Useless is in the cross-referencing.  Blank’s account of April 12, 1981, for instance, begins with instant coffee and vultures perched on a hotel roof. Herzog’s begins with a drowned workman and whiskey and card games. Consensus: Doom is in the air.

Those of us who remember Herzog’s comments on the obscenity and “overwhelming misery” of the jungle in Blank’s film, or his assertion that “I love it against my better judgement,” at last can have this clarification, of sorts, from April 14, 1981: “The Grand Emotions in opera, often dismissed as over the top, strike me on the contrary as the most concentrated, pure archetypes of emotion, whose essence is incapable of being condensed any further. They are axioms of emotion. That is what opera and the jungle have in common.” The next day, according to Blank’s account, “He expressed his intention to end his life if he failed to complete the filming.”

Rest assured, he did complete the filming--and apparently has yet to complete processing the experience of completing the filming. Maybe he never will.