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August 2, 2009

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Futility in the jungle

IN the summer of 1979, director Werner Herzog found himself in the Peruvian river-port city of Iquitos preparing for "Fitzcarraldo," a period epic starring Jason Robards and Mick Jagger that he planned to shoot in the rain forest. Two and a half years later, he was still there, struggling to finish.

Robards and Jagger had long since quit, rendering their footage unusable. Locals had set fire to the film makers' camp; the crew fled waving white flags. Robards' replacement, the German actor Klaus Kinski, had proved so difficult that two Indian chiefs who witnessed his behavior approached Herzog and helpfully offered to murder him. Another member of the film-making team had gone completely insane, grabbed a machete and taken hostages.

Several crises

By then, surrounded by bugs and snakes and rooting pigs, beset by injuries and chronically, critically short of money, Herzog apparently found nothing particularly outlandish in what was happening, so consumed was he by a film that all reason suggested he should have abandoned several crises earlier. "I live my life or I end my life with this project," he said.

"Fitzcarraldo" - which Herzog did indeed finish - has endured long and well in the hearts not only of movie lovers but of connoisseurs of production disasters, partly because the film itself seems to mirror the story of its making.

It's a half masterpiece, half folly about a gesture both grand and grandiose - an attempt by a would-be impresario (Kinski) to build an opera house in the wilds of Peru, a venue he imagine might someday showcase Enrico Caruso. This desire necessitates the deployment of hundreds of Indians to haul an immense ship up a steep mountain ridge, a Sisyphean metaphor that's no less effective for being so explicit.

Herzog returned to analyze his combustible relationship with his leading man - "Every gray hair on my head I call Kinski" - in his 1999 documentary, "My Best Fiend."

And we can now add "Conquest of the Useless," a compilation of Herzog's journals from June 1979 to November 1981, translated by Krishna Winston. (It was first published in Germany in 2004.) In the preface, Herzog warns us that the entries do not represent "reports on the actual filming" but rather "inner landscapes, born of the delirium of the jungle." Cinephiles may groan, as I did, upon discovering that he means it. Anyone hoping for a definitive or even comprehensible account of the making and near unmaking of "Fitzcarraldo" will be sorely disappointed by the unadorned, barely annotated material presented here.

As the curtain rises, we find Herzog at the home of Francis Ford Coppola, where he is staying while he races to finish the script. It feels appropriate, since Coppola's own journey into jungle madness, "Apocalypse Now," has just made its debut at Cannes. We anticipate a moment of baton passing, one world-class film maker handing some sort of cursed amulet of obsession to the next. It doesn't come. "Apocalypse Now" is never mentioned.

Nor do we find out what Coppola's role, if any, was in the future of "Fitzcarraldo." We realize things are going wrong with Robards only when Herzog abruptly refers to the actor's "appalling inner emptiness" (which he seems to have diagnosed after Robards told him he didn't want anyone shooting at him).

And we sense his admiration for Jagger, who works uncomplainingly, photographs Jerry Hall in rain forest chic for Vogue in his spare time and remains game even when a monkey bites him.

But the diaries rarely record a specific conversation, dispute or personal encounter. Nature enthralls Herzog but more workaday concerns only hum distantly in his head. "I went through the daily reports," he writes, "and was devastated to see how little we have accomplished." Absorbed as he is by thoughts of beetles and ostriches, that news, almost two years into his labors, actually surprises him.

For all his maddening opacity, Herzog renders a vivid portrait of himself as an artist hypnotized by his own determined imagination.


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