Werner Herzog Reveals Intense Private Journals In the early 1980s, director Werner Herzog braved gruesome injuries to his crew, hideous working conditions and erratic talent to produce Fitzcarraldo. Herzog discusses Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of 'Fitzcarraldo', a book based on his journals from that time.

Werner Herzog Reveals Intense Private Journals

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106012800/106012902" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

German director Werner Herzog specializes in film epics. But when it comes to his 1982 film "Fitzcarraldo," the off-screen story is even more epic than what moviegoers saw onscreen.

The movie, filmed in the Peruvian jungle, took more than two years to finish. Its original star, Jason Robards, had to quit midway through filming when he came down with dysentery. So, Herzog and his cast of a thousand Peruvian Indians were forced to start all over again with a new lead: the famously volcanic actor Klaus Kinski. Several crew members were almost killed, one had a foot amputated, and the Indians nearly murdered Kinski.

During the filming, Herzog kept a journal. He mentioned it briefly in a 1999 documentary about his friendship with Klaus Kinski. In this scene, Herzog and actress Claudia Cardinale reminisce about that notebook.

(Soundbite of film "My Best Fiend, Klaus Kinski")

Ms. CLAUDIA CARDINALE (Actress): You were writing everything. And Klaus was very jealous because he was out of it.

Mr. WERNER HERZOG (Film Director): And he was afraid somehow of what I was writing.

Ms. CARDINALE: Exactly, because it was, for him, something mysterious. I think you - after, you did a book of it.

Mr. HERZOG: No, I never published it. I never even dared...

Ms. CARDINALE: Oh, you never.

Mr. HERZOG: ...to read it.

RAZ: Well, at last, Werner Herzog has read it and published it. His microscopic, handwritten notes formed the text of his new book, "Conquest of the Useless," notes from the making of "Fitzcarraldo."

And Werner Herzog joins me from our New York studios. Welcome.

Mr. HERZOG: Hello.

RAZ: What took you so long to revisit those notes?

Mr. HERZOG: It was too terrifying to go into all this. We had all sorts of calamities, two plane crashes. We had a border war between Peru and Ecuador. I had my camp attacked and burned down. Every day, a catastrophe. I mean, real catastrophe that normally do not occur during the shooting of a film. And actually, I could only manage to read some 10, 20 pages, and then it was so terrifying that I left it.

And then, many years later, my wife, Lena, encouraged me. She said, you should go into it. And so finally, I looked at it again, and all of a sudden, it fell in place easily.

RAZ: A lot of people are familiar with the calamitous story behind the filming of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." Your journal, this book that you've just written, begins in June of 1979 at Francis Ford Coppola's home. Did you go there seeking advice from him before you went to shoot "Fitzcarraldo?"

Mr. HERZOG: No, not really. But the comparison with Coppola's film, "Apocalypse Now," is not very legitimate because in his case, everything was resolved with ready cash. In my case, I had to produce the film all alone. And sometimes, I was down to no money left. I mean, literally, nothing left. And I had two bottles of shampoo that I sold at the market in Iquitos.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And I bought four kilos, eight pounds of rice, and I lived a whole month on that. So, it can't be really compared.

RAZ: The story, the film follows a character, Fitzcarraldo, who has a dream of building an opera house in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. So, this entire movie was filmed in the jungles. You were there day in, day out for nearly two years. And at one point, you called it a place that God created in anger.

Mr. HERZOG: Well, I have a very stark view of the jungle or nature. People always think I'm romanticizing or I'm part of the German Romantic movement, which I'm not. I think the jungle is vile and debased and full of lewdness and obscenity.

You mentioned that a foot was amputated. It was actually amputated by a lumberman himself. He was bitten by a snake which is the most dangerous of all of them. And he had dropped his chainsaw and he looked at his foot, where he was bitten, and within seconds he started the chainsaw again and cut off his own foot, which actually saved his life. So, it is kind of relentless when you are really in the jungle.

RAZ: And that was just one of several injuries that resulted during the filming of "Fitzcarraldo." Let's listen to a scene from the film where a boat is being tossed around in the rapids.

(Soundbite of movie "Fitzcarraldo")

Mr. KLAUS KINSKI (Actor): (As Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald) (Unintelligible)

RAZ: And we're hearing Klaus Kinski, who plays Fitzcarraldo, shouting during that tumultuous scene.

This really happened. This enormous steamship, on which you were filming, was being tossed around on the rapids, and several crew members were very badly injured during that.

Mr. HERZOG: Not really badly injured. But in this particular incident, we were tossed so violently that I saw the lens flying out of the camera, tried to hold the cinematographer, and we flew through the air. He banged with his hand onto the deck, and the camera was still in his hand, which split his hand apart between the last two fingers.

And of course, it was serious because at that particular day, we had run out of anesthesia. Because two days earlier, some native Indians had clashed with some of our native people and had shot them with huge arrows. And everyone survived, of course. And it was a real torment for the cinematographer to have his hand repaired without anesthesia.

People think, yeah, I recklessly jeopardize safety of people. In almost 60 films that I've done so far, not one single actor was ever hurt. And when we had injuries on the boat, it was technical crew. All of them were volunteers. All of them even pushed me, let's do it on board the ship when it goes through the rapids.

RAZ: I want you to read a passage from your journals. It's dated April 6th, 1981. Would you mind reading that for us?

Mr. HERZOG: Yeah.

(Reading) This morning, I woke up to terror such as I have never experienced before. I was entirely stripped of feeling. Everything was gone. I was completely empty, without pain, without pleasure, without longing, without love, without warmth and friendship, without anger, without hate. Nothing, nothing was there anymore, leaving me like a suit of armor with no knight inside. It took a long time before I even felt alarmed.

RAZ: Werner Herzog, it sounds like you were slowly going crazy over that period of time...


RAZ: ...living in the jungle.

Mr. HERZOG: No, I have to interrupt. No, I was the only one clinically sane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERZOG: No, I'm a very professional, very well-organized person.

RAZ: As we mentioned earlier, Jason Robards was originally cast as the lead. You filmed about 40 percent of this movie, then he got sick and had to quit. So, you turned to your old friend, Klaus Kinski. You had this very complicated relationship with him, to say the least. Let's hear a clip from a documentary you made about him called "My Best Fiend, Klaus Kinski."

(Soundbite of movie, "My Best Fiend, Klaus Kinski")

Mr. KLAUS KINSKI (actor): (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. KINSKI: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

RAZ: So here, Klaus Kinski is raving at one of the crew...

Mr. HERZOG: The line producer, Swiss man, yeah. But the tone was relatively mild. When he was really raving and ranting, he would scream in such a way that he could shatter glass.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: And at one point, you write in your journal that the Indians offered to kill Klaus Kinski.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes.

RAZ: Were they...

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Were they serious?

Mr. HERZOG: Of course, they were serious, yeah. They would have done it in less than 60 seconds.

RAZ: And why did you continue to work with Kinski? I mean, he was famously impossible.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes, that is true. But I had to shoulder this cross every day. And of course, entire crew and the other actors were arguing against me, how can you do this again to us, to have this raving madman, this pestilence on the set? And my answer was there's no one who has his presence and his intensity on the screen ever.

RAZ: With what you sort of know now about filmmaking, would you have done "Fitzcarraldo" in the same way?

Mr. HERZOG: Certainly, yes. Today, we have digital effects. I still would do it without digital effects. Children, five years, six years, seven years old, would know, ah, yeah, there's a digital effect. Normally, they would even know how they are being done.

But I always wanted to have an audience in a position where they can trust their own eyes. With all the virtual realities that we have out there, you cannot trust your own eyes anymore. But in "Fitzcarraldo," you can trust your eyes.

RAZ: Werner Herzog is an award-winning director. His new book about the disastrous filming of "Fitzcarraldo" is out now. It's called "Conquest of the Useless."

Werner Herzog, thank you very much for your time.

Mr. HERZOG: You are very welcome. Just would like to say one thing about the disastrous filming. No, it was not disastrous. There was a great film out there at the end.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HERZOG: But thank you for having me.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.