Welcome to the Jungle-I’m Here Every Day
During the filming of Fitzcarraldo (1982), Werner Herzog, who was 38 at the time, kept a journal of his day-to-day experiences of the Amazonian rainforest. In June, Ecco Press will publish these musings in a 360-page tome entitled Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo. Lucky for us, The Paris Review has published some tantalizing excerpts in their Spring 2009 issue that no fan of this director’s deranged epic—which involved lugging a rusted, 300-ton steamship over a steep mountain—will want to overlook. Herzog’s writing is literate, wry, and extraordinarily vivid, but these aren’t notes on a production so much as they are, in his own words, “inner landscapes, born of the delirium of the jungle.”
Naturally, Herzog writes as he speaks, disgorging thoughts on God, human nature, death, food, weather, animal behavior, and of course, the “obscene, explicit malice of the jungle” and its Boschian inhabitants. Birds shriek in pain, the edges of clouds glow like “angry, seething ore,” and all manner of vermin accost the sleep-deprived filmmaker, whose dreams, when he has them, are punctuated by existential terrors. Everything is madness, torment, and misery under the Herzogian aspect, as “a languid, immobile anger hovers over everything.” At times, Herzog’s entries end with a pithy one-line dispatch from the world outside the green canopy, as in this bit of camp-site reportage, where the absurdities of jungle life are juxtaposed with those of the modern world:
“Hunters had gone out and brought back rodents the size of guinea pigs, which the women roasted on a wooden spit, fur and all. They looked like rats but were tasty. During shooting yesterday the Campas were distracted, shooting with arrows at something on the slope. I ran over and saw that they had shot a snake. It was pinned to the ground by several arrows, which it snapped at. We quickly filmed the scene, and once the poisonous animal had been killed we went back to work….A Japanese doctor operated on his own appendix.”
Elsewhere, he describes watching one of his many bêtes noires—a “vain” white turkey with bluish-red wattles and “ugly feet”—copulate with a headless, still-flopping duck the kitchen crew has just slaughtered for dinner. Needless to say, the forthcoming book promises to be lively. But if the diary excerpts aren’t quite enough for you, TPR also publishes a folio of photographs by the director’s Russian wife, Lena Herzog (neé Pisetski). The subject? Images from a collection of anomalous fetuses kept at the 18th-century Narrenturm (trans: “Tower of Fools”), Austria’s first psychiatric hospital, now a museum of pathology. Talk about a compatible couple.