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Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo (2004)

by Werner Herzog

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Showing 4 of 4
Conquest of the Useless is pure prose poetry and probably the best book about the jungle I've ever read. Before reading it I was already familiar with the film and the documentary Burden of Dreams, about the making of the film, which is required background before reading this book.

Conquest of the Useless reads like a fever dream. Although about the film, the main character is the jungle. It's written in diary format with some days taking up only a single line. There's no narrative but rather flashes of incident. What makes it so amazing are Herzog's trademark non sequitur's which weigh with unspoken significance. Scenes appear without context as part of the fabric of the jungle and it's dreamy obscenity of life and death. The book has many rewards and is hugely generous but will require patience. It took months for me to complete, I could only read small amounts at a time, when the mood was right, leaving scores of pages underlined. A great work of art in its own right. ( )
  Stbalbach | Jan 28, 2013 |
What writing style fits mad endeavors? What format functions well to relate chaos? After finishing “Conquest of the useless: reflections from the making of Fitzcarraldo”, I came to the conclusion that it must be the journal, or at least the journal of such a genius as is the film director Werner Herzog.

Most of us are acquainted with Herzog and his stupendous movies. Aguirre, Nosferatu, Cobra Verde and more recently Bad Lieutenant, are part of our collective film-o-graphic memory. And although the German moviemaker’s reputation has in the past decades slowly moved from pure Art house to that silver lining of mainstream appreciation, there is no doubt that he will never be of the boring mass. Iguanas and jiving dead bodies are just not everyone’s cup of tea.

Herzog is both the last and the apex of a generation of moviemakers who forsake the studios to go out in the world to capture both the truth and a poignant story. No gimmicks, no card board settings, no digital corrections or mock – up’s. Only true images, true settings and true emotions. For what is less known to the larger public is that Herzog is a documentary maker first. It is well worth to get out of your couch to get a view of such reportages as “The great ecstasy of woodcarver Steiner”, “Bells from the deep” or “Grizzly Man” to understand how Herzog creates his movies both in his inner eye and on the silver screen.

In “Fitzcarraldo”, starring the infamous Klaus Kinsky and the lovely Claudia Cardinale, Herzog recounts the story of Brian Fitzgerald, an obsessed Opera lover whose dream it is to build an Opera House in the middle of the Amazon jungle. To acquire the necessary funds, Fitzgerald develops a business scheme which should bring him a fortune: he plans to bypass the dangerous Pongo de Mainique rapids on the Peruvian Urubamba river, who hamper a shipping liaison between Manaus and the Rubber fields, by hauling a boat over land to another nearby free flowing river. Ambitious enough, but unfortunately the only suitable small strip of land over which the ship has to be moved is not only primeval jungle but also a steep hill.

Fitzcaraldo, as the Indians call him, will embark on his impossible enterprise, and with a monomaniacal rage tear his boat over the jungle mountain. A work of immense folly, requiring unprecedented resources and even human sacrifices. All for the sake of Opera. Art has effectively replaced God in this man’s mind.

Now to capture realistically on film what his main personage wants to do, Herzog has no other option than…to pull a ship over a jungle mountain in the middle of the Amazon.

With poor financial backing, filming in the middle of the jungle, in a region on the brink of war, with hundreds of unruly indigenous extras, huge engineering challenges, sickness, accidents, floods and revolting and mad actors, Herzog films his movie

And while Herzog’s endeavor appears to be as monomaniacal as Fitzcarraldo, it is his journal which shows the truth.

The journal appears to be a real journal with numerous dated entries. Each entry describes something Herzog witnesses. Images, micro-scenes. A spider for instance.
A spider big as a hand, hidden in his shoe, feeling like a sock. Or a dying kitten, attacked by chicken, half –eaten by the chicken. A dead child. A sad mongrel of a dog. A woman nursing a pig, a woman nursing a dog. A drown man. A drown man washed out of his shallow grave by the rising river. A drunk man lying on the ground, a drunk woman sprawled on the ground showing her private parts. Mud. Rain. Heat. The river rising, the river dropping, “click”. A freed Anaconda slipping into the grass. “click”. Another frame “click” and another frame.
Werner Herzog thinks in pictures, in images, in “Bilder”. You imagine him framing the scenery between his hands, thumbs and indexes touching. Click, camera switched on, recording. He said it. “Ich woltte dabei sein”, I wanted to be there “mit eine Kamera”.

Images, like cinema stills, framed realities jotted down in his journal, a whole book full, page after hallucinating page. Herzog is a visual artist, he thinks, dreams, fantasizes in pictures, cinematic stills, nearly no movement, just a bit, to show it is real, details, his eyes catches details, details which hide heart-breaking stories, hint at parables expose worlds…

Images, not stories is how I remember all his movies. The Bat flying towards us in “Nosferatu”; the rats in the street in the same movie; Aguirre standing on his raft, chasing the small apes; A boat in the jungle, pulled over a mountain. A man standing with his back to an approaching bear. An iguana. Kaspar, the abused mystery child, exposed at the market. The ecstatic open mouth of the ski-jumper Walter Steiner…The narrative, if any, is forgotten. Images remain.

Aguirre, my first Herzog movie, seen with my Dad in a small cinema in Ivory Coast. I was thirteen year old. An epiphany. A receptivity for Art awakened. An understanding; a connection with the Artist. No need for story…images, just images… the brown flowing river, the forbidding shore of the jungle that slips by, the abandoned villages…the trapped conquistador. The movie touched a nerve. Even that young I recognized that river, that Amazon jungle, that erotic exuberance of Life. I’ve been there, I have seen it, felt it. I understood Herzog’s movie in a way which was surely beyond my age.

Werner Herzog, inheritor of Lotte Eisner’s demonic genius…His journal like a pointillist painting, every entry a dot, a speck on a large canvas that slowly emerges, a canvas depicting human folly, inhuman endeavor and a master – director, icy calm amidst a mayhem and a chaos, he is directing in the name of his Art.

What a book ! What a man ! ( )
8 vote Macumbeira | Oct 6, 2012 |
3.5? I'm a big fan of Herzog-- but this journal would have been so much more compelling had I heard him read it out loud. ( )
1 vote KatrinkaV | Apr 9, 2012 |
Magnificent book, one of the best I've read in this year.

I've grown quite fond of diaries and journals over the past while and Herzog's notes, written in minuscule script during the making of his epic film "Fitzcarraldo", are mesmerizing, poetic, candid and illuminating. Not much about the making of the actual film, more a depiction of the inner landscapes of the director's mind, the moods (ecstatic, furious, depressed) that accompanied the massive undertaking of bringing the film to the world's screens. ( )
2 vote CliffBurns | Apr 8, 2010 |
Showing 4 of 4
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Epigraph
Fitzcarraldo: Auf den Koch Ihrer Hunde! Auf Verdi! Auf Rossini! Auf Caruso!
- Don Araujo: Auf Fitzcarraldo, den Eroberer des Nutzlosen! - Fitzcarraldo: So wahr ich vor Ihnen stehe, werde ich eines Tages große Oper in den Urwald bringen! Ich bin...in der Überzahl! Ich bin die Milliarden! Ich bin das Schauspiel im Wald! Ich bin der Erfinder des Kautschuk! Durch mich wird Kautschuk erst zum Wort! (Dialog aus dem Film "Fitzcarraldo")
Dedication
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Wie bei der irrwitzigen Wut eines Hundes, der sich in das Bein eines bereits toten Rehs verbissen hat und an dem erlegten Wild rüttelt und zerrt, so dass der Jäger ihn zu beruhigen aufgibt, hatte sich in mir eine Vision festgekrallt, das Bild von einem großen Dampfschiff über einen Berg - das Schiff unter Dampf sich aus eigener Kraft einen steilen Hang im Dschungel hinaufwindend, und über einer Natur, die die Wehleidigen und die Starken gleichermaßen vernichtet, die Stimme Carusos, die allen Schmerz und alles Schreien der Tiere aus dem Urwald zum Verstummen bringt und den Gesang der Vögel verlöscht.
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Eine Feindseligkeit kam bei einem Teil der Versammlung auf, die ich bisher nur aus Berichten früher Seefahrer kannte, nur dass die Eingeborenen T-Shirts mit "John Travolta fever" und "Disneyland" trugen.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061575534, Hardcover)

One of the most revered filmmakers of our time, Werner Herzog wrote this diary during the making of Fitzcarraldo, the lavish 1982 film that tells the story of a would-be rubber baron who pulls a steamship over a hill in order to access a rich rubber territory. Later, Herzog spoke of his difficulties when making the film, including casting problems, reshoots, language barriers, epic clashes with the star, and the logistics of moving a 320-ton steamship over a hill without the use of special effects.

Hailed by critics around the globe, the film went on to win Herzog the 1982 Outstanding Director Prize at Cannes. Conquest of the Useless, Werner Herzog's diary on his fever dream in the Amazon jungle, is an extraordinary glimpse into the mind of a genius during the making of one of his greatest achievements.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:29 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

One of the most revered filmmakers of our time, Werner Herzog wrote this diary during the making of Fitzcarraldo, the lavish 1982 film that tells the story of a would-be rubber baron who pulls a steamship over a hill in the Amazon jungle in order to access a rich rubber territory. Later, Herzog spoke of his difficulties when making the film, including casting problems, reshoots, language barriers, epic clashes with the star, and the logistics of moving a 320-ton steamship over a hill without the use of special effects. Hailed by critics around the globe, the film went on to win Herzog the 1982 Outstanding Director Prize at Cannes. Herzog's diary is a glimpse into the mind of a genius during the making of one of his greatest achievements.--From publisher description.… (more)

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