(Ecco, 320 pages, $24.99)
By Werner Herzog
In the long history of troubled movie productions, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo stands in an honored place alongside Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate. The story of Herzog’s literally Sisyphean determination to push an actual, multi-ton steamboat over a mountain between two rivers—as does the hero of the film (played by Klaus Kinski)—has been told before by documentarian Les Blank in Burden of Dreams. There Herzog appeared in familiar gaunt and monkish guise, cursing the “fascism of nature” and apparently pushing his cast and crew to the brink of insanity. (Kinski, of course, maintained a second home on the brink of insanity.) However, Blank only saw half the story. Conquest of the Useless, now available in a superb translation overseen by Herzog, tells the rest. But it’s not simply the director’s side of the story, it’s also the story of the first, abandoned production a year earlier, with Jason Robards in the title role and a cast that included Mick Jagger and Mario Adorf.
Herzog never makes life easy on himself, repeatedly hurling himself into the most hostile locations—Antarctica, the Sahara, rims of live volcanoes—and dragging his terrified casts and crews along with him. “The powers of heaven are powerless against the jungle,” Herzog writes early on, and his memoir is filled with signs of nature’s cruel surrealism: rivers that rise and fall 30 feet overnight, carrying away half the set; unidentifiable beasts and reptiles, all malevolent; and an adopted monkey nicknamed “Tricky Dick Nixon.” One loses count of the loathsome, life-threatening specimens Herzog shakes out his shoe each morning. And his actors are no better: Robards is dismissed as a hypochondriac, Adorf as an egomaniacal schemer, and Kinski throws one blitzkrieg tantrum after another. Injuries are plentiful, and despite on-set medical improvisation, the climate often prevents them from healing. If that weren’t enough, Indian extras are distracted by attacks by other tribes, and dampness and extreme heat wreak havoc with equipment.
We can debate whether Fitzcarraldo made it all worthwhile, but this book certainly does, capturing as it does Herzog’s Germanically exacting but exquisite use of English, and his lyrically fatalistic worldview, redeemed as always by his immense capacity for wonder and horror.
Review written by John Patterson.