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Home » Culture and Criticism

Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo

Submitted by on July 20, 2009 – 8:11 PM15 Comments

1982_klaus-kinski_claudia-cardinale_183-7-3Today the bat was still there.Someone had neatly laid a strip of toilet paper over it.It was dead, its position unchanged.I left it there and did not use the sink, not out of disgust or hygienic considerations but out of an unarticulated sense of respect.One of my favorite words in Spanish has always been murciélago, bat.My life seemed like an invention to me, with its pathos, its banalities, its dramas, its idling. (152)

I have recently developed an intellectual crush on Werner Herzog, which began with Encounters at the End of the World and an admiration of his facility for, for lack of a better word, normalizing the imagery — pulling gorgeousness back from the edge of sentiment, and then elevating the prosaic with a shot of the sublime.I have also developed a crush on his accent; the way he pronounces the word "focus" in particular is a snippet of music, which gets stuck in my head but which I can't replicate in written form.

Herzog's writing is like that too.I know I like it; I can point to passages that work perfectly, little seamless creations that function like eggs, or leaves, the craftsmanship and then the simplicity; lyrical bits, insights, and then a short complainy passage about trooping into the jungle to poo.But it's the same as explaining why a joke is funny: once the explanation succeeds, the joke no longer can.

A cautious melancholy hangs over the whole place, like places remembered from childhood that have changed in the meantime. (283)

Let me try it from another angle.I listened to Herzog telling Leonard Lopate in his melodically stern way that Conquest of the Useless is not a filming diary or a behind-the-scenes look at his troubles with giant ships and Kinski's tantrums — disappointing, since that's my favorite kind of book, plus Herzog teased me with an anecdote about los indios offering to assassinate Kinski for him, and then Herzog described the memoir as a journal of dreams and dreamlike events, which is my least favorite kind of book.I bought it anyway, because Herzog called himself prouder of his writing than of his filmmaking.I trusted him, and I trusted myself to read along in his accent in my head.

The risk paid off.I loved the book, and I don't even like a good portion of Herzog's non-documentary features — Aguirre has now put me to sleep three times — but I admire him for making them, because I think I now understand how impossible they all seem, even more so than the average feature, and how important he has made it to execute grand ideas no matter how outlandish.Maybe this is what he meant by dreams, in fact — or that the one informs the other.

If my mentioning that the book, in only a few sentences, turns Mick Jagger from an archetype into an awesome-sounding guy you wouldn't mind getting stuck in traffic with doesn't convince you, perhaps a couple of short quotations might illustrate why Herzog is now my famous boyfriend.Or perhaps that evidently Herzog trained himself to keep his journals in writing so teeny that he required a jeweler's loupe to read it later.Or that his first language is not English.

Our little monkey was wailing in his cage, and when I approached, he looked and wailed right through me to some distant spot outside, where his little heart hoped to find an echo. (106)

In the evening with a larger group to a Chinese restaurant.We were in a sort of separate niche, as were the other guests in the place. There were eleven of us, ten, that is, plus me.I was the primary number.I wanted to steal away into another era, quietly and without creating a commotion. (142)

(I have had that precise feeling many times.)

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  • aem says:

    a beautiful review of what looks to be a gorgeous book. thanks for the recommendation!

  • MsMolly says:

    Oh I'm just the same way. I can take or leave a lot of his movies, but when I got to hear him speak at Ebertfest here in Champaign a few years ago I was completely charmed. He told a couple of stories about being an exchange student, dropping out of college, having to sneak back across the border after a visit to Mexico, and a few other episodes from his youth and I could have listened to him all day. I'd love to see a documentary that was just him talking about himself.

  • Wendy says:

    Have you seen Burden of Dreams, the (non-Herzog) documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo? It's really great, and has lots of footage of a younger Herzog being existentially mopey in the jungle, which is how I developed my crush on him.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    It's en route from Netflix as we speak — as is "My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski." Cannot wait!

  • Jaybird says:

    For sheer cinematic brilliance, see Kinski in "Crawlspace". Wait–it's not brilliance. It's camp. It's camp so campy you need canoes and bug repellent.

  • Kathryn says:

    Please tell me that you saw the write-up of the BBC interview in which he is shot at by a sniper! And then he says, "It was not a significant bullet. I am not afraid". That alone made me love him.

  • The Hoobie says:

    I have a similar crush on Guillermo del Toro. Like you, I can take-or-leave some of his movies, but I LOVE the fact that he calls himself "a crazy fat f**k from Guadalajara," and I saw him on Charlie Rose recently (I know, I'm 100 years old), and he was just so warm and funny and human that I wanted the interview to go on forever. Plus he seemed so damn smart that I almost expected to see sparks shooting out of his head.

  • scienceiscool says:

    Anyone who likes Werner Herzog really needs to see Incident at Loch Ness, a hilarious mockumentary in which he plays himself.

  • Annie says:

    Ooh, "My Best Fiend" is great!

  • Sandman says:

    @Jaybird: "It's camp so campy you need canoes and bug repellent" is brilliant/Am stealing.

  • Shannon in CA says:

    @Sandman "is brilliant/Am stealing" is brilliant/am stealing!

  • Kelly says:

    @The Hoobie: I can totally co-sign your crush on Guillermo del Toro. He's awesome.

  • ophelia says:

    OMG, I thought I was the only one who had a crush on Herzog (and his accent)! This really made me smile.
    And – I *heartily* second the recommendation of 'Incident at Loch Ness' – it's brilliant.

  • dani says:

    Ooh, and have you heard the story about how Joaquin Phoenix flipped his car a few years ago and was rescued by Herzog? Here's the quote:

    The actor says, "I remember this knocking on the passenger window. There was this German voice saying, 'Just relax.' There's the airbag, I can't see and I'm saying, 'I'm fine. I am relaxed. Finally, I rolled down the window and this head pops inside. And he said, 'No, you're not.'

    "And suddenly I said to myself, 'That's Werner Herzog!' There's something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog's voice. I felt completely fine and safe. I climbed out. I got out of the car and I said, 'Thank you,' and he was gone."

    … Just imagine THAT one!

  • Jaybird says:

    @dani: Is it possible that, given that this is Joachim "I'm a rapper now. No, really" Phoenix, who might not be the patron saint of gritty reality, he may have imagined it too? I mean, maybe he didn't, but…it's Joachim Phoenix. I guess we're lucky he's not claiming that Big Bird gave him CPR or something.

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