- Craig Graziano
"We have no dinosaur, it says on a hand-lettered sign outside a farm that puts on rattlesnake rodeos."
To find pleasure in Conquest of the Useless, you must have at least a passing familiarity with the filmmaker Werner Herzog. Herzog has been writing and directing films for five decades, but only a few of his movies have broken into the American mainstream. The most well known here are the documentary Grizzly Man and the Vietnam War film Rescue Dawn (starring Christian Bale).
Each of Herzog's works oozes with a mood of effortless intensity, as if he has summoned the stress and obsessions of humanity like moths to a flame. Whether it's Timothy Treadwell (Grizzly Man's protagonist, who lived with and was inevitably eaten by bears) or Nosferatu (from Herzog's 1979 remake), the director is singular in his subjects' driven focus on their goals and desire, no matter how self-destructive they may be.
Conquest of the Useless is made up of Herzog's diaries while making the 1982 film Fitzcarraldo. The movie centers around a herculanean task that involves dragging a gigantic riverboat up a mountain in the Amazon rainforest. The hero of the title hopes that this feat will make it easier to transport rubber out of the jungle. By avoiding the dangerous rapids downstream, Fitzcarraldo hopes to gain wealth, and eventually reach his ultimate goal of building an opera house...in the middle of the rainforest. Unhinged? Probably. Determined? Entirely.
So Herzog, like the story's hero, decides that the only way to reach his goal, making the movie work, is to also drag a riverboat up a mountain without any special effects. Along for the ride are Jason Robards and the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger as the main characters, Fitzcarraldo and his assistant. In a perfect world, that would have been the movie that audiences saw. But Herzog is well aware though that a perfect world is nothing more than a child's fantasy.
Robards' lack of commitment and the Stones' American tour leave our hero in a lurch. Herzog replaces them with Klaus Kinski, an actor who he's worked with before, and has pushed him to the brink of insanity numerous times. Tantrums, egomania, and hypochondria are a given when Kinski is around. While making the movie, the natives of Peru who acted as extras found Kinski so obnoxious that they offered to murder him for Herzog. The director has said that he declined only because he had not shot all Kinski's scenes yet.
While the conflict of making the film is the centerpiece of these entries, the real gems are Herzog's observations of nature's ongoing battle to annihilate everything he sees, from small animals to his own hopes and dreams.
"Out by the garden wall, in the direction of the banana plants, a washhouse had been built, but before the concrete had a chance to set up, ants had built canals and tunnels through it."
These asides become the soul of this story. Herzog sees how entropy take over and describes it matter-of-factly, time and time again. The absurd blends with the tragic beautifully, such as in the above quote about the dinosaur. And to know what Herzog's voice sounds like is the icing on the cake. It is simultaneously elegant, melancholic, and powerful.
I have tried to do Mr. Herzog justice, but I am not sure simply describing him can accomplish such a task. You must hear him yourself in order to know whether his unique perspective is for you or not. I leave you with a clip from the documentary Burden of Dreams, which focused on the making of Herzog's film.