Excerpt: 'Conquest Of The Useless'

'Conquest of the Useless'
Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo
By Werner Herzog
Hardcover, 320 pages
Ecco Books/Harper Collins Press
List price: $24.99

Camisea, 11 June 1981

We positioned the chata with the platforms for the cameras farther down the river. Two boats were attached on the right and left, and in front there was another free-floating boat. In the smooth, swift-flowing water by the gravel bank the chata with its six-meter-high superstructures promptly drifted into the trees on the riverbank, which pulled down the rope ladder attached to the top, and for a moment it looked as though the whole structure would collapse on the crew of about twenty. I shouted to Chirino, the daydreaming boatman, that he should untie his boat immediately, but he just stared at me in rapture. The wobbling of the structure above him thrilled him. The next moment the chata swiveled around its own axis and buried first one, then the other of our large boats, since they were roped together, and forced them to the bottom. Then the chata rolled over them, crushing the boats, and I saw Chirino and the other boatman swimming away. Bobbing on the water were the red fuel canisters, plastic oil bottles, and smaller gas drums. I leaped half-dressed into the water, followed by three or four other men, and we managed to pull the boats out from under the chata and turn them so they were floating keel-up. We towed them close to the bank, and there, with great effort, we were able to flip them over. Then Beatus, who had been photographing the scene, also jumped into the water and was able to capture three fuel canisters farther downstream. The boats had not been crushed but merely had a few more leaks and scrapes than before. The whole thing was so grotesque and had happened so fast that we all laughed. One of the boats had lost its battery, but the current was so fierce that we did not even try to dive and recover it.

We reached the chosen shooting location three kilometers downstream, just above Shivankoreni. There, with Vignati's help, I undertook to stretch a sturdy hemp rope across the river, but it was tugged so powerfully by the current that it was almost impossible to get it across the river and fastened. Later about eighty dugouts and small rafts hooked up on it. With Miguel Vazquez, El Tigre, and three motosierristas we prepared the trees that were supposed to fall into the river behind the canoes as a barrier. Miguel attached dynamite sticks to two of the largest trees because I was afraid the timing would not work out if we felled them manually. Mauch did not make the task any easier; he thought the line of canoes looked skimpy and insignificant, and he wanted us to call a halt. I had to take him around in a boat so he could see that at least sixty canoes full of Indians were tied up along the bank under overhanging branches, ready to leap into action. In the meantime Chirino kept bumping with his boat into the rope holding back the rafts, and wandered into camera range so often that I finally had to pull him off the river entirely to keep him from ruining the scene. I sent our best swimmers, among them Beatus, to organize the arrangement of the canoes. When the light was almost completely gone, I shooed all those who did not have parts in the scene back behind the cameras, and when several of the smaller raft islands had drifted into the right position, I radioed instructions to fell the first tree, which was the signal for the Campas to start rowing. All this had to be done unrehearsed. Since it took quite a while before all the canoes were moving and well distributed, I waited a long time to have the next, really large tree felled by a dynamite charge. The delay almost made the others lose their nerve. When Klausmann, standing next to me, heard the signal for the explosion, he panned with a long focal length just as the tree came crashing down, and as he followed the movement he managed to take in all the canoes spread out across the river. I had the enormous tree on the other bank felled at the very moment when I felt he had to have reached that spot with his pan.

As I had expected, Walter did not return from Lima. I had sent him there to get significantly stronger cables, reels, and hooks. Only if we have those do I think we have any realistic chance of hauling the ship up the mountain. It is not a question of available tractive power, because according to the laws of physics a child could pull the ship over the ridge with one finger, provided there was a pulley system with a conversion ratio in the thousands and enough rope. But you'd have to pull the rope two kilometers to move the ship two centimeters up the slope.

It was already dark when I was called to the medic's station in the big camp. Up on the plateau between the two rivers, woodsmen had been felling trees, barefoot as usual, and one of them had been bitten by a snake. Snakes had never been seen anywhere near chain saws, because the noise and the exhaust fumes drive the snakes deep into the jungle, but this man had suddenly been bitten twice in the foot. He had dropped his chain saw and just caught a glimpse of the snake before it disappeared into the underbrush; it was a chuchupe. Usually this snake's bite causes cardiac arrest and stops breathing in less than a minute, and cases in which a person has survived a bite longer than seven or eight minutes without treatment are almost unknown. Our camp with the doctor and the antivenom serum was twenty minutes away. The man, so I was told by someone who had been working next to him, had stood motionless for a few seconds, thinking hard. Then he had picked up the chain saw, which had stalled when it hit the ground, pulled the cord to start it, the way you pull an outboard motor, and had sawn off his foot above the ankle. I saw the man — his whole body was gray. He was alive, perfectly collected, and very calm. Before they took him to the doctor, the others had tied off his leg in three places with lianas: below his crotch, below his knee, and above the stump, and had twisted the lianas with sticks to make a tight tourniquet. They had stuck a kind of moss on the stump to stop the bleeding. I had a plane readied to fly him out to Lima the next day. It is better in any case to keep him under observation overnight to make sure he does not go into shock.

From Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog. Copyright 2009 by Werner Herzog. Published by Ecco Books. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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