Dream and Delirium
In the summer of 1979, the director Werner Herzog found himself in the Peruvian river-port city of Iquitos preparing for “Fitzcarraldo,” a period epic starring Jason Robards and Mick Jagger that he planned to shoot in the rain forest. Two and a half years later, he was still there, struggling to finish. Robards and Jagger had long since quit, rendering their footage unusable. Locals had set fire to the filmmakers’ camp; the crew fled waving white flags. Robards’s replacement, the German actor Klaus Kinski, had proved so difficult that two Indian chiefs who witnessed his behavior approached Herzog and helpfully offered to murder him. Another member of the filmmaking team had gone completely insane, grabbed a machete and taken hostages. By then, surrounded by bugs and snakes and rooting pigs, beset by injuries and chronically, critically short of money, Herzog apparently found nothing particularly outlandish in what was happening, so consumed was he by a film that all reason suggested he should have abandoned several crises earlier. “I live my life or I end my life with this project,” he said.
“Fitzcarraldo” — which Herzog did indeed finish — has endured long and well in the hearts not only of movie lovers but of connoisseurs of production disasters, partly because the film itself seems to mirror the story of its making. It’s a half masterpiece, half folly about a gesture both grand and grandiose — an attempt by a would-be impresario (Kinski) to build an opera house in the wilds of Peru, a venue he imagines might someday showcase Enrico Caruso. This desire necessitates the deployment of hundreds of Indians to haul an immense ship up a steep mountain ridge, a Sisyphean metaphor that’s no less effective for being so explicit.
The movie and its making are both fables of daft aspiration, investigations of the blurry border between having a dream and losing one’s mind. So it’s no surprise that in some ways, the back story has lingered longer than the story. The trials of “Fitzcarraldo”have already been the subject of one superb documentary, Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams,” and a book by the same name (edited by Blank and James Bogan). And Herzog himself returned to analyze his combustible relationship with his leading man — “Every gray hair on my head I call Kinski” — in his 1999 documentary, “My Best Fiend.”
To those fragments of illumination we can now add “Conquest of the Useless,” a compilation of Herzog’s journals from June 1979 to November 1981, translated by Krishna Winston. (It was first published in Germany in 2004.) In the preface, Herzog warns us that the entries we’re about to read do not represent “reports on the actual filming” but rather “inner landscapes, born of the delirium of the jungle.” Cinephiles may groan, as I did, upon discovering that he means it. Anyone hoping for a definitive or even comprehensible account of the making and near unmaking of “Fitzcarraldo”is going to be sorely disappointed by the unadorned, barely annotated materials presented here.
As the curtain rises, we find Herzog at the home of Francis Ford Coppola, where he is staying while he races to finish the script. It feels appropriate, since Coppola’s own journey into jungle madness, “Apocalypse Now,” has just made its debut at Cannes. We anticipate a moment of baton passing, one world-class filmmaker handing some sort of cursed amulet of obsession to the next. It doesn’t come. “Apocalypse Now”is never mentioned. Nor do we find out what Coppola’s role, if any, in the future of “Fitzcarraldo” was intended to be. Nor do we learn what exactly has brought Herzog to his doorstep.
It never gets easier. Important figures arrive, then vanish, sometimes identified by first names only, their jobs, roles and relationships to Herzog mentioned only in passing a hundred pages later, or never. A book that cries out for interstitial explanations offers almost none, and the few that do appear only make matters worse. “Eight months expunged, as if I wished they had never happened,” Herzog interjects after an October 1979 entry. “A year of catastrophes, personal and related to my work.” Two paragraphs later, we pick up in July 1980, with no further light shed on those work-related catastrophes, although they presumably had some bearing on the story we’re vainly attempting to piece together.
We realize things are going wrong with Robards only when Herzog abruptly refers to the actor’s “appalling inner emptiness” (which he seems to have diagnosed after Robards told him he didn’t want anyone shooting at him). And we sense his admiration for Jagger, who works uncomplainingly, photographs Jerry Hall in rain-forest chic for Voguein his spare time and remains game even when a monkey bites him. But the diaries rarely record a specific conversation, dispute or personal encounter. Nature enthralls Herzog; people, less so. There is an awful lot about cows, dogs, lizards, moths and fist-size tarantulas, and anyone who has seen Herzog’s recent documentaries “Grizzly Man” and “Encounters at the End of the World” will recognize his singular ability to evoke the beauty and ruthless savagery of the natural world. But more workaday concerns only hum distantly in his head. “I went through the daily reports,” he writes, “and was devastated to see how little we have accomplished.” Absorbed as he is by thoughts of beetles and ostriches, that news, almost two years into his labors, actually surprises him.
But the befogged internal swirl of Herzog’s mind becomes an improbably apt vantage point from which to view the history of “Fitzcarraldo.” For all his maddening opacity (“Time is tugging at me like an elephant, and the dogs are tugging at my heart”), Herzog renders a vivid portrait of himself as an artist hypnotized by his own determined imagination. Occasionally he leaves the jungle, but he never really leaves it behind. He stops in New York in December 1980, anthropologically observing the dazed mourners in Central Park after John Lennon’s death while fretting about unsigned contracts. In England, he visits the set of “The Shining” and meets Stanley Kubrick, but the two men, each trapped in his own nightmarish production, don’t really connect. Back in Peru, he gets a telegram from Munich warning that his mother may die. Someone steals his underwear. He records all this with the same benumbed neutrality. Nothing reaches him — not other people, not the punishing weather or tribal hostilities or delays, not even his notoriously loony star. (“No one will ever know what it cost me to prop him up, fill him with substance and give form to his hysteria,” Herzog writes of Kinski, concealing the full story even from his diary.)
As time wears on and Herzog becomes a man whose “life seems like a stranger’s house to me,” the entries convey a rootlessness and dislocation — geographical, spiritual, emotional — so profound that barely a pretense remains that “Fitzcarraldo” is about anything but his own fervent determination. “I am 38 now,” he writes, “and I have been through it all. My work has given me everything and taken everything from me.” The words read less like a declaration than a suicide note. Nearly three decades later, it’s unclear what’s more remarkable — that Herzog finally got his ship up the mountain, or that he managed to come down the other side more or less intact.