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In our pages: Werner Herzog's 'Fitzcarraldo' diaries

June 29, 2009 |  9:39 am

Three years of film director Werner Herzog's diaries have been published in "Conquest of the Useless: Reflections From the Making of 'Fitzcarraldo.' " The difficulties making the 1982 film -- about an opera-loving rubber baron who takes a steamship up the Amazon where it must be hauled over a mountain to reach its destination -- have already been shown in the documentary "Burden of Dreams." In our review, Lawrence Levi writes:

As "Burden of Dreams" made clear, "Fitzcarraldo" turned into a metaphor for itself: Herzog and his protagonist shared the same impossible goal. The jungle shoot became famous for its calamities, including Herzog's arrest by local authorities; the departure of the original star, Jason Robards, after he fell ill with dysentery; a border war between Peru and Ecuador; plane crashes; injuries; problematic weather; and an increasingly dejected crew.

So is there really any need for a book? Levi concludes there is.

"Conquest of the Useless" fills in the gaps of that account and shows what makes Herzog so compelling as an artist, particularly in his nonfiction films: his acute fascination with people and nature. ...

The book is also filled with terrifically funny and precise renderings of the creatures that inhabit the film crew's two jungle camps -- ants, bats, tarantulas, mosquitoes, snakes, alligators, monkeys, rats, vultures, an albino turkey and an underwear-shredding ocelot. "For days a dead roach has been lying in our little shower stall, which is supplied with water from a gasoline drum on the roof," Herzog writes in an entry dated "11 July 1979." "The roach is so enormous in its monstrosity that it is like something that stepped out of a horror movie. It lies there all spongy, belly-up, and is so disgusting that none of us has had the nerve to get rid of it."

Herzog was, of course, in the jungle so he could drag a full-sized steamship over a mountain. But moving that cockroach -- too much. Which is pretty phenomenal when you look at what it took to move the steamship, in the movie's trailer, above.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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