Over the July 4th weekend I finally saw Werner Herzog’s much praised 2005 doc Grizzly Man and while I was watching I couldn’t help but think about how amazing it would have been had Herzog been given the chance to put together a camping trip with Grizzly Man protagonist Timothy Treadwell and the famed Herzog collaborator Klaus Kinski. I don’t think Kinski would have been afraid of a grizzly bear and I have a good feeling he may have eaten Treadwell before the grizzlies ever had a chance to all while yelling obscenities at Treadwell’s pet fox. Both men were (and still are) eternally fascinating and deserving of Herzog’s eye as it didn’t take me long to realize why Treadwell’s story fascinated Herzog to the point of piecing together 90 minutes of Treadwell’s amateur footage into a feature-length doc and it was worth every minute.
Bringing this little story back to the headline, Herzog just released a new book titled “Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo” which contains direct (and sometimes condensed) entries from over 1,000 pages of Herzog’s diary from the making of the 1982 film Fitzcarraldo starring Kinski as a man who wants to bring the opera to the Peruvian jungle and ends up dragging a river boat across land over a gigantic hill. The premise taken at face value will either sound wildly absurd or instantly genius, but I can tell you now that approaching the film with either thought process will have you coming out with the same conclusion… brilliant.
To accompany the release of the new book Herzog has been doing the press rounds and spoke with S. James Snyder at Time about the writing which Herzog calls “sheer poetry or prose” as opposed to any kind of mere journal entry as well as discusses the content of the book such as when he was when he speaks of the thousands of natives working with him on the film and says, “They came to me and wanted to kill [Kinski] for me — and when I say that it was serious.” Of course, anyone that has seen or knows anything about Kinski isn’t surprised by this and should you not know what I am talking about, watch the video to the right of Kinski on set of Fitzcarraldo and step out of the dark and into the light.
Over at Time’s website you can actually listen to all of Snyder’s interview with Herzog (it’s 23 minutes long) as well as catch a short video snippet and an abbreviated version of the interview. Here’s a brief portion of what it has to offer:
Reading your stories, I was reminded of the problems Francis Ford Coppola faced with Apocalypse Now. You say at one point in the book that you were flat broke and that you traded two bottles of shampoo for four kilos of rice. Is that the low point?
The distinction between Apocalypse Now and my film is that Coppola always resolved films with ready cash. There was always a lot of money flowing around. In my case, because I had to produce the film myself, I was down to the utmost limit. So I lived in a chicken coop and had nothing to eat any more. But I remembered from Miami I had two bottles of shampoo – well one was shampoo and the other was conditioner – and I traded it at the local market for four kilos of rice and I ate rice for three or four weeks. That’s how I survived. No one can imagine how far down I was sometimes.
Was that the low point?
There were lower points because there were more dramatic events, like if you’re building a camp for 1,100 people in the middle of the jungle and a border war breaks out and local people attack your camp and burn it to the ground. That’s a serious sort of thing. Besides that, there were accusations that I was committing human rights abuses – which were all fabricated – and a tribunal was set up against me. These things are hard to handle and of course I still feel the pain.
I bring this up because fans of Herzog are sure to be interested since I know his following is HUGE and extremely dedicated, but also because I am personally beginning to slowly delve into his massive filmography and each turn has been immensely fascinating.