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Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo

Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo

by Werner Herzog

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“Hypnotic….It is ever tempting to try to fathom his restless spirit and his determination to challenge fate.”

—Janet Maslin, New York Times


Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) is one of the most revered and enigmatic filmmakers of our time, and Fitzcarraldo is one of his most honored and admired


“Hypnotic….It is ever tempting to try to fathom his restless spirit and his determination to challenge fate.”

—Janet Maslin, New York Times


Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) is one of the most revered and enigmatic filmmakers of our time, and Fitzcarraldo is one of his most honored and admired films. More than just Herzog’s journal of the making of the monumental, problematical motion picture, which involved, among other things, major cast changes and reshoots, and the hauling (without the use of special effects) of a 360-ton steamship over a mountain , Conquest of the Useless is  a work of art unto itself, an Amazonian fever dream that emerged from the delirium of the jungle. With fascinating observations about crew and players—including Herzog’s lead, the somewhat demented internationally renowned star Klaus Kinski—and breathtaking insights into the filmmaking process that are uniquely Werner Herzog, Conquest of the Useless is an eye-opening look into the mind of a cinematic master.

Editorial Reviews

Mark Harris
…the befogged internal swirl of Herzog's mind becomes an improbably apt vantage point from which to view the history of "Fitzcarraldo." For all his maddening opacity…Herzog renders a vivid portrait of himself as an artist hypnotized by his own determined imagination.
—The New York Times Book Review
Janet Maslin
The observations to be found in Conquest of the Useless are much more private and pitiless, as Mr. Herzog finds evidence of an indifferent universe wherever he turns. With the same bleak eloquence that he brings to narrating his nonfiction films (and what voice can match Mr. Herzog’s for mournfully contemplative beauty?) this book describes the exotica of the jungle. Obsessed with the bird, animal and insect worlds as a way of avoiding the human one, Mr. Herzog keeps a steady record of the perverse spectacles he encounters.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Originally published in the noted director's native Germany in 2004, Herzog's diary, more prose poetry than journal entries, will appeal even to those unfamiliar with the extravagant 1982 film. From June 1979 to November 1981, Herzog recounted not only the particulars of shooting the difficult film about a fictional rubber baron-which included the famous sequence of a steamer ship being maneuvered over a hill from one river to another-but also the dreamlike quality of life in the Amazon. Famous faces swim in and out of focus, notably Mick Jagger, in a part that ended up on the cutting room floor, and the eccentric actor Klaus Kinski, who constantly berated the director after stepping into the title role that Jason Robards had quit. Fascinated by the wildlife that surrounded him in the isolated Peruvian jungle, Herzog details everything from the omnipresent insect life to piranhas that could bite off a man's toe. Those who haven't encountered Herzog on screen will undoubtedly be drawn in by the director's lyricism, while cinephiles will relish the opportunity to retrace the steps of one of the medium's masters. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

The journal entries that make up this disarmingly poetic memoir were penned over the course of the two and a half years it took Herzog to make his film Fitzcarraldo, for which he won the best director award at Cannes in 1982. Herzog's earthy and atmospheric descriptions of the Amazon jungle and the Natives who live there among wild and domesticated animals in heavy, humid weather conjure a civilization indifferent to the rhythms of modernity. The impossible odds that conspired to stop production of the film and the sheer obstinacy it took to attempt it in the rain forest instead of a studio parallel the plot of the film itself: with the help of local Natives, Fitzcarraldo pulls a steamship over a steep hill to access rubber so he can earn enough money to build an opera house in the jungle. Herzog has made over 50 films during his prolific career. Compelling reading, this is recommended for film collections in public and academic libraries.
—Donna L. Davey

Kirkus Reviews
The acclaimed director's diary of his time making Fitzcarraldo (1982). From the beginning, the film faced more challenges and uncertainties than most of Herzog's other movies, and he composed a lengthy list that ended with the grim forecast that it could "be added to indefinitely." Filming had to start anew after Jason Robards, the original lead and an actor Herzog came to scorn, abandoned the project halfway through due to illness, and Mick Jagger, set to play the lead character's assistant, had to drop out to go on tour. When filming restarted, it was with German actor Klaus Kinski, a raving, unhinged presence in these journals-his volatility so alarmed the locals that they quietly asked the director if he wanted Kinski killed. Then there were the nightmarish logistics of the famous scene where a steamship is dragged over a small hill in the jungle, from one river to another. Herzog insisted that, as the central metaphor of the film, the event must be recorded without any compromise. (Much of the behind-the-scenes drama is recorded in Les Blank's documentary Burden of Dreams.) Herzog's journals effectively map the director's dislocation and loneliness, but they also highlight his unique imagination and the profound effect the remote Peruvian location had on him. The writing is haunted by what Herzog came to see as the misery of the jungle, a place where "all the proportions are off." He slept fitfully, when at all, and there is a hallucinatory quality to the journals-the line between what is real and what is imagined becomes nearly invisible. Recorded daily, with occasional gaps and fragments, Herzog's reflections are disquieting but also urgent and compelling-as he notes, "it's onlythrough writing that I come to my senses."A valuable historical record and a strangely stylish, hypnotic literary work.
Los Angeles Times
“Reveals Herzog to be witty, compassionate, microscopically observant and—your call—either maniacally determined or admirably persevering.”
Time Out New York
“Stands alone as a compellingly gonzo piece of reportage. . . . As a read, Conquest flies along—but not because it’s especially plotty. Rather, it gathers its kick from the spectacle of a celebrity director escaping the late–’70s famescape into his own obsessions.”

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Conquest of the Useless
Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo

Chapter One

San Francisco, 16 June 1979

In Coppola's house on Broadway. Outside the wind is howling, whipping the laurel bushes. The sailboats in the bay are lying almost flat, the waves sharp-contoured and restless. The Alcatraz Light is flashing signals, in broad daylight. None of my friends is here. It is hard to buckle down to work, to shoulder this heavy burden of dreams. Only books provide some measure of comfort.The little tower at one corner of the house, foolishly designed for meditation, is flooded with such glaring light that whenever I venture into it, I stay for only a minute before being driven out again. I have pushed the small table against the one available unbroken stretch of wall, all the rest being taken up by windows that are filled with this demented light, and on the wall I have used a sharp pencil and a ruler to draw a mathematically precise reticle. That is all I see: set of crosshairs. Working on the script, driven by fury and urgency. I have only a little over a week left of staring mindlessly at that one spot.The air is cool, almost chilly. The wind rattles the windows so hard that I lose sight of the point and turn around, facing directly into the light, so clear and piercing that it hurts the eyes. On the Golden Gate Bridge those moving dots are cars. Even the post office at the foot of the hill offers no shelter. As I toil up the steep slope, blown leaves on the ground catch up with me. It is the tail end of spring, but the foliage is yellow and dark red. The wind whips the leaves ahead of me across the rocky hillside, and by the time I reach the top,the fist of the void has swept them away. Once more, despite all my attempts at fending it off, a shuddering sense creeps into me of being trapped in the stanza of a strange poem, and it shakes me so violently that I glance around surreptitiously to see whether anyone is watching me. The hill becomes transformed into a mysterious concrete monument, which makes even the hill take fright.

San Francisco, 17 June 1979

Coppola's father plays me a tape of his opera. As he listens, his face takes on an entirely uncharacteristic expression, chiseled, stern, and intelligent.San Francisco, 18 June 1979

Telegram from Walter Saxer in Iquitos. Apparently things are looking very good, except that the whole situation might collapse from one moment to the next. We are like workmen, appearing solemn and confident as we build a bridge over an abyss, without any supports. Today, quite by chance, I had a rather long conversation with Coppola's production man. Over a hamburger and a milk shake he tried to convince me that he would take the project's fate in hand. I thanked him. He asked whether that meant thank you, yes or thank you, no. I said thank you, no. Coppola is not completely back on his feet after a hernia operation. He is displaying a strange combination of self-pity, neediness, professional work ethic, and sentimentality. The office on the seventh floor was trying feverishly to get a hospital bed delivered and set up in the mixing studio, and another one in some other location. Coppola did not like the pillows and complained all afternoon about the various kinds that were rushed to the spot; he rejected every one.

Los Angeles, 19â€"20 June 1979

Executive floor of 20th Century-Fox. It turns out that no proper contract has been signed between Gaumont, the French, and Fox. 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 in 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.

In the evening off to the cinema, where Les Blank cooked for the audience watching his films; he calls these performances smell-around. For the first time I saw the tattoo on his upper arm, two masks on strings: death laughing and death weeping. I could not stay for the end of the last film because my flight was leaving at midnight, a wretched affair with stops in Phoenix, Tucson, San Antonio, Houston, and Miami; the stewardesses, who had to put up all night with an impossible first-class passenger, call this flight a milk run.

Caracas, 21 June 1979

No one came to meet me. My passport was confiscated immediately because I had no visa; allegedly they will return it to me when I leave. Several men who looked German were standing around expectantly, scrutinizing the incoming passengers, but I did not have the nerve to approach them.

Caracas, 22 June 1979

Caracas, Hotel Ávila. Slept a long time, woke up quite confused. I must have had horrible dreams, but do not remember what they were. There is no running water; I had wanted to take a long shower. I am keeping Janoud's money with me; I have a feeling things get stolen in this hotel.

The morning meeting with filmmakers was lively. I saw a bad feature film and lowered my expectations to a flicker. Caracas caught up in a frenzy of development. Nasty little mosquitoes are biting my feet. It rained heavily in the morning, and the lush mountains were shrouded in billows of mist, which made me feel good. The taxi drivers here are not to be trusted. I have not eaten all day. Signs of Life is playing; the guards at the entrance are bored. There is a melancholy peeping in the trees; I thought it was birds, nocturnal ones, but no, I was told, they were little tree frogs.

A young man from Caracas who wants to make a film about the mad poet Rafael Ávila, known as Titan, told me about him and gave me one of his poems. Titan lived in a village near Maracaibo, sang in bars, and went mad. There is a plaster bust of him in the cemetery, with a large mustache, a contorted face, and unkempt hair. Someone has painted his hair and beard in bright colors. His gravestone carries the inscription

Las vanidades del mundoLas grandezas del imperioSe encierran en el profundoSilencio del cementerio

Caracas, 24 June 1979

Five hours at the airport, with some passengers hysterical because the flight to Lima had been canceled without explanation; the next flight does not leave until four days from now. That gave me time to inquire about my passport. It was not there, and only after a series of coincidences did it turn up. It is a mystery to me how I managed to get on the overbooked Aeroperu flight. On the plane a stunningly beautiful Peruvian woman was seated next to me, clearly a member of the country's wealthy oligarchy. First she said it was too hot, a short while later too cold. As we were changing planes in Bogotá, she called after me that it was very hot, and on the plane she said it was very cold in Lima at this time of year, and I should have a warmer jacket. She said this not so much in a spirit of helpfulness in the stifling, grimy, overcrowded plane; rather, she spoke to me in the tone she would have used to reprimand her gardener or her house servants.

Conquest of the Useless
Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo
. Copyright © by Werner Herzog. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Werner Herzog grew up in a remote mountain village in Bavaria. He never saw any films, television, or telephones as a child. During high school he worked the nightshift as a welder in a steel factory to produce his first film, in 1961, at the age of nineteen. Since then he has produced, written, and directed more than fifty films, including Aguirre, the Wrath of God; The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser; Rescue Dawn; and Grizzly Man. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

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