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The Virginia Quarterly Review
Sunday, September 20th, 2009
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Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo

by Werner Herzog

This Gravity-Ridden World

A review by Giles Harvey

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 Maria 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 Maranon , 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.

Or this?

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.

Herzog courts difficulty not for its own sake but because it repays his attentions. He seems to produce his best work when everything is going wrong. Difficult or unusual circumstances, he has claimed, bring life to a project: "without the outside world to react to," his films are "killed stonedead." And Herzog has had his share of difficult or unusual circumstances: having his entire cast hypnotized (as in Heart of Glass), choosing a lead man who has never acted and has spent most of his life in prisons and psychiatric institutions (The Enigma of Kasper Hauser), or shooting an entire film, the majority of which takes place on a small raft drifting down the Amazon, with a single camera (Aguirre, The Wrath of God). In fact, Herzog once remarked that Fitzcarraldo was his greatest documentary, by which he presumably meant that the film is as much a record of its own chaotic making as it is a work of deliberate and premeditated art. Because of his intense identification with the film's protagonist -- "Why shouldn't I play Fitzcarraldo myself?" he writes in his journal shortly after Robards's departure: "I would trust myself to do it because my project and the character have become identical" -- Herzog was able to canalize his own setbacks and frustrations directly back into the film that caused them.

Herzog's views about filmmaking cannot be separated from his views about the world at large. One of his core beliefs as a director -- that if you work under difficult circumstances you will create stranger, more vital films than you would otherwise -- is also a belief he holds about life. The severe affliction suffered by so many of Herzog's characters -- the dysphasic Kasper Hauser, utterly deprived of human contact for the majority of his life; the god-fearing, paranoid-schizophrenic Woyzeck; the traumatized prisoner of war, Dieter Dengler -- is always presented as a means by which these characters achieve what Herzog calls "a radical human dignity." Not that difficulty exists in Herzog's films solely to be overcome: that would be far too weightless a vision of the universe. Rather, difficulty is justified by the way it reveals a person's capacity to bear it. Without it, the people in his films would not have become the people they are.

In this respect, the deaf-blind Fini Straubinger, from the early documentary Land of Silence and Darkness, is one of the most exemplary Herzogian figures and a distant spiritual cousin of Fitzcarraldo. Straubinger, who lost her sight and hearing as a teenager, volunteers for the League of the Blind and spends her time organizing social events and paying visits in an effort to strengthen ties within the deaf-blind community. It is slow work, to say the least. Many of the people she meets have ceased entirely to communicate with others; some have never communicated and clearly never will. But Straubinger remains undeterred. "I'm like you," she says, or signs, emphatically, as a kind of last resort, to those who are totally unresponsive. Gradually, however, we realize that she could be addressing anyone, deaf-blind or otherwise. Like the attempt to pull a steamship over a mountain, Straubinger's efforts to communicate, her refusal of limitation, take on qualities representative of all humanity.

The effect of Land of Silence and Darkness might be compared to the experience of traveling in a country where one doesn't speak the language: fervently attentive to every gesture, every facial expression in our effort to understand what's going on, we realize, by comparison -- and rather sadly -- how little attention we pay to other people at home. It is difficult not to feel as though we have taken life too much for granted: the simplest things -- taking a shower, going for a walk in the country, shaking hands -- become startling and mysterious when performed by a person who can't see or hear, as though we were witnessing them for the first time.

This desire to restore to us a sense of the world's mysteriousness, so bound up with his representation of struggle and affliction, is one of the fundamental impulses behind Herzog's work. He is always trying to get us to recognize the strangeness of ordinary things, to startle us out of our accustomed ways of seeing. One of his favorite ways of doing this is to demonstrate how arbitrary these accustomed ways of seeing are. Discussing another early documentary, The Flying Doctors of East Africa, Herzog tells the following story:

One of the doctors in the film talks of showing a poster of a fly to the villagers. They would say, "We don't have that problem, our flies aren't that large . . . We decided to take some of the posters the doctors used for instruction to a coffee plantation to experiment. One was of a man, one of a huge human eye, another a hut, another a bowl, and the fifth -- which was put upside down -- of some people and animals. We asked the people which poster was upside down and which was of an eye. Nearly half could not tell which was upside down, and two-thirds did not recognize the eye. One man pointed to the window of the hut, for example.

Herzog is fascinated by such moments of visual misprision, which occur throughout his films. Few ideas have meant more to him over the years than the idea that images can be fruitfully misconstrued. Several of his films -- Fata Morgana, Lessons of Darkness, The Wild Blue Yonder -- are comprised of footage that is deliberately belied by a narrating voiceover.

The same principal of visual transposition finds its greatest expression in The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, a film based very loosely on the life of the actual Kasper Hauser, who appeared one day in Nuremberg in 1828, having spent the first seventeen years of his life in solitary confinement. He was unable to walk, had almost no understanding of language, and could speak only a few sentences. Like Fitzcarraldo and Fini Straubinger, Herzog's Kasper has trouble accepting the incommensurability of his imagination with the world. "Why is everything so hard for me?" he asks his well-meaning yet conventional mentor, laboriously enunciating each word, two years after arriving in the town. "Why can't I play the piano like I can breath?" But Kasper's incessant struggle with life cannot be separated from the vitality of his perceptions. In one of the film's greatest scenes, the mentor figure, Professor Daumer, and the local vicar, Fuhrmann, are trying to correct Kasper's eccentric notions of causality. To demonstrate that, contrary to Kasper's belief, apples don't have lives of their own and are subject to man's will, Daumer announces he will roll one down the path and asks Fuhrmann to stick out his foot to stop it. Daumer, however, throws the apple slightly too hard, and it bounces over the vicar's foot. "Smart apple!" Kasper exclaims in delight. "It jumped over his foot and ran away!"

By virtue of Kasper's skewed commentary this apparently banal image of an apple skimming down a garden path is suddenly defamiliarized. The moment shows how Kasper is actually looking at and responding to the world, whereas his pompous benefactors are working backwards, retreating from experience into abstraction, using the world simply as a means of supporting what they already know about it. Herzog is at his most interesting not when he shows us new landscapes -- as in La Soufriere, Encounters at the End of the World, and his other exotic documentaries -- but when he gives us new eyes with which to look at the things we thought we already knew. When we watch Kasper observing the apple it feels as though Herzog has achieved what he once described as his artistic goal: "to take cinema audiences back to the earliest days, like when the Lumiere brothers screened their film of a train pulling into a station. Reports say that the audience fled in panic because they believed the train would run them over."

Fitzcarraldo, Straubinger, Kasper, and even the Herzog of Conquest, however different their individual circumstances, are all embodiments of the same principle: the refusal to accept any disjunction between what can be imagined and what can be achieved. Usually such a refusal has tragic consequences, for there is a gulf between human aspiration and ability. Herzog is not blind to this dour insight -- so many of his films end in failure and defeat -- and yet he celebrates the impulse to transcend our limitations as noble in itself, regardless of what follows. In his films, the ability to see the world as something other than what we've been told it is -- as a place where boats move over mountains or apples follow their own will -- is already a kind of victory.

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