I noticed that a retrospective of several of Werner Herzog's early films is screening at the Lincoln Center Film Society this week in New York. I wish I could go. It's been years since I watched my favorite Herzog film, his masterpiece, Fitzcarraldo (1982), or Les Blank's Burden of Dreams (also 1982) an excellent documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo.
However, I just finished Herzog's book Conquest of the Useless: Reflections From the Making of Fitzcarraldo, which I would attempt to describe had Janet Maslin not already nailed it with one word: "hypnotic."
Fitzcarraldo is the story of an early 20th century would-be rubber baron and his obsessive quest to build an opera house deep within the Amazon jungle, which leads him to drag a 320-ton steamship over a mountain with the help of scores of indigenous people and a system of pulleys and levers, a feat filmed sans special effects. Herzog's single-minded drive to complete the film and to actually accomplish what his character will stop at nothing to achieve results in a unique film that defies genre and creates a bleak, ominous world of its own. Its images resonate decades later, and reading Conquest, I'm brought right back into the midst of the intense madness and the imaginative beauty of the whole gorgeous train wreck from which I still cannot manage to look away.
The film stars Herzog's muse and nemesis, Klaus Kinski, whom Herzog called his "best fiend," and a "wild beast" responsible for "every gray hair on my head." Of his relationship with Kinski, which spanned several fantastic films and several times as many apocalyptic arguments and confrontations, Herzog said "I did not love him, nor did I hate him. We had a mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned each other's murder."
Native Peruvian Indians cast as extras in the film indeed offer enthusiastically to simply murder Kinski during one of his regular screaming, maniacal rants, but Herzog manages to resist the temptation. Kinski, seemingly always on the brink of utter madness, appears in Conquest as an abusive, intolerant, wife-beating, insane egomaniac capable of fleeting moments of compassion and understanding, yet Herzog is perhaps kinder to Klaus than Kinski's own children, who have accused him of sexual abuse and other horrors. Thus, unless he had cast himself (which he considers at one point in the book) it is unlikely that Herzog could have cast an actor more suited to play a man driven to madness by obsession with such a seemingly impossible task.
Though Jason Robards was cast in the title role before the first attempt to shoot Fitzcarraldo fell apart and started all over again, perhaps Herzog knew all along that there was only one man alive who could play the titular hero. I suspect he wanted to avoid dealing with Kinski yet again after casting him as a man in a similar frame of mind in Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) and enduring the trials of their volatile working relationship, but it is difficult to imagine someone else as Fitz.
I have precious few heroes, but Werner Herzog is one of them. A fearless cultural critic and deeply empathic observer of the human condition who always seeks truth, Herzog is inspiring. Is it possible not to love a guy who said that "our grandchildren will blame us for not having tossed hand-grenades into TV stations because of commercials?" Of course he's not really advocating for violence, but he's absolutely right about commercials. When interviewing murderers on death row, he said "your crime is abominable and monstrous, but I will treat you as a human being."
Herzog's documentaries pulse with his distinctive cadence in elegant verbal poetry, his German-accented English like an evil counterpoint to David Attenborough's exuberant optimism. Herzog could be Attenborough's dark nemesis, calmly resigned to catalog our collective doom. Herzog grew up in a remote Bavarian village outside Munich, and as a boy, after refusing to sing a song in front of his classmates as directed, he eschewed all music until the age of 18. He now says he would give ten years of his life to be able to play an instrument. He saw no films and didn't even use a telephone until his late teens. He worked the night shift as a welder to afford to finance his early films, which he shot with a camera he had "liberated" from a nearby university.
He once pulled Joaquin Phoenix from his flipped, burning car after an accident in the Hollywood hills, calling 911 and disappearing afterward into the night. He may be the only director to have made films on every continent. In the seventies, he was bumped at the last minute from a flight that crashed and then made a film about the lone survivor. He said "if I had to climb into hell and wrestle the devil himself for one of my films, I would do it."
Herzog's rather unorthodox approach to a (hypothetical) film school is noteworthy:
"At my utopian film academy I would have students do athletic things with real physical contact, like boxing, something that would teach them to be unafraid. I would have a loft with a lot of space where in one corner there would be a boxing ring. Students would train every evening from eight to ten with a boxing instructor: sparring, somersaulting (backwards and forwards), juggling, magic, card tricks. Whether or not you would be a filmmaker by the end I do not know, but at least you would come out as an athlete...actually, for some time now I have given some thought to opening a film school. But if I did start one up you would only be allowed to fill out an application form after you have walked alone on foot, let's say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of about five thousand kilometers. While walking, write. Write about your experiences and give me your notebooks. I would be able to tell who had really walked the distance and who had not. While you are walking you would learn much more about filmmaking and what it truly involves that you ever would sitting in a classroom. During your voyage you will learn more about what your future holds than in five years at film school."
He's obviously a Faustian guy, a fan of Goethe, one who clearly values a life of experience over just about everything. How else can an artist know the world and comment truthfully on it than by engaging with it fully, allowing the world and the environment to drive the experience and to make its impact on the creator? There will be no storyboards for Herzog because the process unfolds as he is making the film. Apparently not a fan of the French New Wave, he has called Jean-Luc Godard's films "intellectual counterfeit money compared to a good Kung Fu film;" yet Francois Truffant called Herzog "the most important film director alive."
Herzog is the kind of artist that can make just about anything fascinating simply by deeming it worthy of his attention. This sounds like hyperbole, but I assure you it is authentic praise. Though even Herzog is not immune to satire, of course. He has a sense of humor and even ate his shoe after losing a bet with a young colleague, Errol Morris, after encouraging Morris to complete his first film. Morris went on to make several great films including The Thin Blue Line (1988) and The Fog of War (2003).
Herzog's uncompromising creative vision has permeated each of his films. They all seek what he has called an ecstatic truth; each is a journey compelling viewers to enlist, never really knowing where they will be led. There are still many among Herzog's oeuvre of which I have yet to experience, but I like having unseen movies to look forward to, so I have resisted the temptation to binge on his cannon, sweeping through it as I might with a series of lessor genre movies.
My favorites include, of course, Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Grizzly Man (2005), but also Little Dieter Needs To Fly (1997), Encounters at the End of the World (2007), My Best Fiend (1999) and Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979).
Herzog's characters often hover on the edge of sanity, and nature becomes an adversary despite its beauty. As beer is to Homer Simpson, nature is, to Herzog's protagonists: both the source of and solution to life's challenges. The duality of this relationship between man and nature has proven to be fertile ground for his work. Though he has won scores of awards, he has said that he is "not out to win prizes--that's for dogs and horses." I agree; it's nice to be recognized for a job well done, but competition for awards among artists has always seemed counter-intuitive.
Conquest of the Useless resonated with me long after I had set the book aside, and I found myself struck, in the most unlikely of places, by images from Herzog's vivid journal entries from the Peruvian jungle in the early eighties. Standing on a tennis court, visualizing his cabin on stilts on the banks of the Amazon jungle, I was unable to shake the image of his staring contests with various otherworldly snakes, birds, insects and reptiles, his anthropomorphic interactions with poultry, pigs, fire ants, cobras and tarantulas; though I was serving, I had to ask my opponent if he remembered the score. My mind wanders on the tennis court. Sometimes it's about food; other times it's about movies.
Sitting in my dull, gray cubicle, imagining the pulsing cacophony thousands of jungle animals would create as Herzog lay in this cabin at night, only a year older then than I am today, I ponder his task of mobilizing hundreds of native inhabitants to drag a steamship over a mountain from one section of river to the next and the unrelenting tidal wave of related human, animal, environmental, political, financial and personal challenges he endured. I would temporarily forget where I was and daydream as though I had such monumental tasks and challenges of a creative nature to ponder instead of the droll healthcare reports laid out in front of me demanding my attention and slowly draining me of my youth. As I wander back and forth from work to apartment in the congested urban landscape in which I live, I remember his comment that "civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness." No, I don't paint my fingernails black and only rarely listen to the Cure. Still, the best art--for me, the truest art--is often very dark.
Certain powerful, unrelated passages, too, some of them almost evoking Kerouac in their rambling streams of consciousness, would not leave me alone after I closed the book, and I did not want them to, so I marked them in my copy of Conquest, rereading them. They include these excerpts which I will post below, hoping to enlist a few readers with interest in Herzog's work:
"Trees falling all the rest of the day. When these giants fall, the sound is the exciting part. The mightiest tree of all sighed, then screamed, then farted, then crashed with incredible force into the forest. Long afterward large limbs continued to snap until they finally fell silent. A bat colony fluttered off in confusion, along with swarms of wasps, birds, a cloud of small flying insects. Tiny, thin caterpillars flee, humping their midsection, then throwing their front section ahead, rushing along in a caterpillar gallop."
"A man was hacking away at the yucca plants with his machete. My frying pan is all rusty. On the wall hang things that seem to stare at me in bewilderment, wondering whether I still belong to them. In the afternoon I fell asleep in the hammock on my porch, my limbs heavy. Several times I tried to get up, until the setting sun reached me under the palm roof, and burned me in the face, as if filled with hatred. At that point I withdrew into my four bamboo walls and tried to take in the situation. I ate a few cookies that I found in a tin. Unmoved, the birds in the forest were exchanging information. A twig cracked, but no one was coming. It is a hot, sultry afternoon, drained of meaning."
"I laid out test strips in the sand along the bank, with honey, urine, laundry detergent, beer, and soap, to see what attracts butter-flies most effectively. They often alight in extraordinary numbers, attracted by something, and I would like to place Fitz in the middle of a swarm like that."
"Large green lizards are rustling in the leaves. Fish leap out of the water as if they actually belonged to the clouds in the sky. It is only through writing that I become myself. At the other end of the camp someone is hammering a board, and the sound comes back in a hollow echo from the forest. The forest does not accept these sounds. Last night there were thousands of winged creatures hovering around the lamps, raging in wild swarms like spherical catastrophes around the light bulbs. One could eat only with the light switched off. In the morning, by the boat landing, where a more powerful lamp has been installed, there were piles of wings on the ground, like a snowdrift. Everywhere spiders have spun their webs under the roof, near the electric light, and with such a surfeit of prey they cannot attend to every captured gift; they have taut bellies, as plump as cherries."
Herzog continues to buck the status quo and defy anyone's attempt to corral his artistic vision. If you haven't seen any Herzog movies, you should get busy, but don't just take my word for it. Roger Ebert agreed with me and said that Herzog "never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting," and that "even his failures are spectacular." If you fancy yourself a "serious" student of film and look down your nose at Ebert (I think you're wrong because he's an excellent writer), remember that Herzog himself said that "film should be looked at straight on; it is not the art of scholars but of illiterates...academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion."
Herzog's recent short film about the dangers of texting while driving is burning up the YouTube charts and should save lives. I hope he continues to make his uncompromising films (and writing about them) for many decades to come. This is a quote-heavy post, but I cannot resist concluding with a final comment from Werner Herzog himself, a fitting close to the best argument I can make for anyone who reads this blog to seek out this living legend's body of work:
"It is not only my dreams, my belief is that all these dreams are yours as well. The only distinction between me and you is that I can articulate them. And that is what poetry or painting or literature or film making is all about...it's as simple as that. I make films because I have not learned anything else and I know I can do it to a certain degree. And it is my duty because this might be the inner chronicle of what we are. We have to articulate ourselves, otherwise we would be cows in the field."