Conquest of
The Useless

Reflections from the Making of

Werner Herzog
Krishna Winston,

Werner Herzog spent over five years in and out of the jungle forests of Peru in order to make a movie about being in the jungle forests of Peru and in the process hauling a 320-ton steamer over the mountains from the Rio Camesea to the Rio Urubamba. Conquest of the Useless is the journal Herzog kept during the production of the movie.

If you have lived in the Amazon jungle for any time at all, maybe you can figure out the whys and wherefores of this weird movie script. I have not and --- after reading Conquest --- I think I'll stay at home, in bed.

Mosquitoes, snakes, scorpions, biting midges, lizards, floods, drought, noisy parrots, boas, chuchupes, mad Indians, mad pigs, mad movie-makers, broken arms, broken backs, and Mick Jagger. (Seriously. He was part of the scene until Herzog finally wrote him out of the script.)

Outside of the accidents and beasties of the rain forest, there is the eating of maggots: "fat yellowish whitish maggots bigger than cockchafer grubs, with dark, sturdy heads. They squirmed on the men's hands before the men ate them, slurping as you slurp oysters."

    Suddenly they came over to me, and before I knew what was happening, I had three of those writhing creatures in my hand as a gift. They gave me to understand I should try them, and stared at me intently in happy anticipation.

"They are supposed to be especially tasty when you roast them over a fire briefly, and they are also supposed to be unusually high in protein and fat."

Did he eat them or not? Dear reader ... I leave it to you to read Conquest to find the answer to this fraught question. And let me assure you, you have nothing to lose. For this is about the most wonderful exotic journal I have ever come across, next to, perhaps, those of Lewis & Clark, Captain Cook, and, perhaps, that of Mick Jagger himself.

The strange landscape becomes the movie, the movie becomes the journal, and the wild river wildly fits into the lunacy of the whole project. Imagine it: Herzog decides to make a picture about this mountain boat-hauling routine. Meanwhile, Les Blank drops in to make a movie about Herzog making a movie. Did someone come along behind Blank to make a movie about making a movie about making a movie about hauling a boat? We are not told here.

Herzog is offered a fine location to do the whole schmeer in San Diego, California. But being Herzog, he would never ever do something so plain-assed simple. No, he has to go off the muggy wastes of Amazonia, hire thousands of extras, deal with a river gone crazy, crazy actors too, to a country --- Peru --- also looney (continual fear of invasion from Ecuador: one of those brouhahas that has legs, has gone off and on for two hundred years.)

Herzog is there too, he says, at war with "the useless." Which may lie leering near his hut on a moonless night:

    Outside in the darkness four thousand frogs are crying for a savior. The frogs have lowly thoughts and carry on lowly research. I wish a taxi would come and take me somewhere.

"There is a tugging at me like an elephant, and the dogs are tugging at my heart ... Abel Gance talked to me for a long time about his idea for a fifteen-hour film on Columbus, which he wants to pass on to me, now that he has seen Aguirre. He says he is ninety, and it is too much for him. Half seriously, half jokingly, he said that he would like to die here, if that were acceptable."

    We drank red wine to that, straight from the bottle, and he remarked that he did not take anything seriously, he took everything tragically.

Not seriously, but tragically. Yes.

§     §     §

After a series of broken arms, dislocated shoulders, snake-bites, arrows from Indians, slides, trees falling, storms, infections, swellings, life-threatening illnesses, lunatic outbursts, machete fights ... finally the actor Klaus Kinski organizes a delegation to come to Herzog's hut. Herzog is "calmly watching the river flow by. I interrupted their preamble, pointing out that I was perfectly calm, much calmer than everyone else out here, so what did they want to say?"

    They wanted to talk me out of hauling the ship over the mountain, protect me from my own insanity --- they did not use that term, but their meaning was obvious. They asked whether I could not revise the script so that Fitzcarraldo did not have to pull the ship over the mountain.

    I said that we had not really tried towing the ship yet, and I attempted to buck them up in their faintheartedness.

This nut project. And this nut, Herzog, by the majesty of his screwy vision, drags all these people --- hundreds, thousands --- friends, family, associates, investors, Indians, Peruvians, Germans ... drags them into this lorky project, so that it becomes their project, so much so that they come to him, to try to talk him out of this screwy idea, in that land of trees and monkeys and bugs and soldiers and Indians and egomaniacal actors and whores and fighting drunks and paranoiacs: to talk him out of this project, because he is mad to have even conceived it, and, even worse, is madder yet .... no? ... to keep on so that they will too (maybe) have to go ahead and do it with him and go mad too.

It is the way power works, no? There he is, our modern-day Maximilian, there in the director's chair, assuming his own power, swaying his followers into thinking they too can be part of this screwy world of visionaries, those who dare to haul massive boats over massive peaks before the camera (the very one he stole from the Munich Film School; it was his right ... he told them).

And it worked: they bought into his cracked idea, had to watch as the world they thought they were creating slowly spun apart. The demand of destiny; the demand of history.

Herzog's vision is surely not unlike Aguirre's ... and it takes chutzpa to hold this shit together. (Sometimes we are blinded by a disastrous vision.) Maybe Herzog is visionary, but then, maybe, he is nothing more than a stupendously good chronicler of the fits and the starts of humanity: "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 lightbulbs. 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."

--- Lolita Lark
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