So I am currently reading two books: Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick and Conquest of the Useless by Werner Herzog. Both are basically fabulous. Today I want to talk about the Herzog book because I’m basically bookgasming on every single page.
First, some background. Werner Herzog is one of my favorite directors; you’ve probably heard of Grizzly Man, that was his. But back in the ’70s and ’80s he was making movies with a man named Klaus Kinski, a brilliant madman of an actor. Aguirre: Wrath of God is one of the famous collaborations. Also: Fitzcarraldo.
Fitzcarraldo, set in the early 20th century, is about a European opera-lover (Kinski) in the Peruvian jungle who decides to become a rubber baron (also he wants to build an opera house). He gets his parcel of land for rubber harvesting, but for some reason—my memory gets a bit sketchy on the details here—he has to get a steamship from one river to another in order to get to the land, and he decides the best way to do this is to drag it over the top of a mountain. Here’s the trailer if you want the flavor:
So Herzog decided the best way to film the steamship being dragged over the top of a mountain in the Peruvian jungle was to actually drag a steamship over the top of a mountain in the Peruvian jungle. From the book, a conversation with the movie bosses:
The unquestioned assumption is that a plastic model ship will be pulled over a ridge in a studio, or possibly in a botanical garden that is apparently not far from here–or why not San Diego, where there are hothouses with good tropical settings. So what are bad tropical settings, I asked, and I told them the unquestioned assumption had to be a real steamship being hauled over a real mountain, though not for the sake of realism but for the stylization characteristic of grand opera. The pleasantries we exchanged from then on wore a thin coating of frost.
That ended up being an adventure. Throw in a totally crazy leading man and the making of Fitzcarraldo becomes the stuff of legend. There was a documentary made of the making of the film (Burden of Dreams) which I like almost as much as the film itself.
Here is what the filming of Fitzcarraldo looked like, from another famous documentary, this one by Herzog, called My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski. Herzog is the dude with the bandana headband near the end; you’ll figure out Kinski on your own. (even if you skipped the last clip you should watch this one…)
Which led to this, one of the most famous stories to come out of Fitzcarraldo:
So that’s what Herzog was working with. The book I’m reading is his diary from the time of filming, recently published for the first time. I haven’t even gotten to Klaus Kinski yet and the book’s already a firecracker. And so beautifully written, it’s like poetry on every page (it was translated from German, but still). Peru is “a sleepy country at which God’s wrath has cooled.” The room he is using at Francis Ford Coppola’s house has “windows that are filled with this demented light.” And I love all his little stories.
In the Rio Santiago the body of a soldierwho had been shot came floating along, on his back, swollen, the legs bent at the knees and the arms bent likewise; he looked as if he were raising his hands. Birds had already hacked out his eyes and eaten away part of the face. The comandante here advised letting him float by—so as to avoid any trouble; they would have to deal with him farther downstream. He gave the swimmer a gentle nudge with his boot, and the corpse spun around once before the current took hold of him.
Basically you should read this book. I mean, I’m barely 20 pages into it, so obviously this isn’t a proper review at all (see all the youtube videos?) but wow. So good. Bookgasm.
In closing, one more video that you should watch even if you don’t care about anything else in this post. See, Kinski wasn’t originally the lead, it was some other guy who got fired or quit or something so they had to totally restart filming. This video shows a scene first done by the original actor and then by Kinski, and wow. Oh yes, and the reason you should watch it? Mick Jagger’s in it. Good thing Herzog changed his mind about that.