At the weekend I was watching with my partner the wonderful movie, The Mission, starring Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro. The hot, humid, fly ridden jungle scenes reminded me of something by Werner Herzog that I had saved as a possible draft and it spurred me to share it with you. It is clear that his experiences filming Fitzcarraldo were not particularly pleasant. This comes on the anniversary of our good friend Jasper Winn’s walk in the footsteps of Herzog’s 1974 walk from Munich to Paris in the depth of winter to save the life of a friend.
by Werner Herzog
From the Paris Review
For reasons that escape me, I simply could not make myself go back and read the journals I kept during the filming of Fitzcarraldo. Then, twenty-four years later, my resistance suddenly crumbled, though I had trouble deciphering my own handwriting, which I had miniaturized at the time to microscopic size. These texts are not reports on the actual filming—of which little is said. Nor are they journals, except in a very general sense. They might be described instead as inner landscapes, born of the delirium of the jungle. But even that may not be entirely accurate—I am not sure.
A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter gives up trying to calm him. it was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong. To be more precise: bird cries, for in this setting, left unfinished and abandoned by God in wrath, the birds do not sing; they shriek in pain, and confused trees tangle with one another like battling titans, from horizon to horizon, in a steaming creation still being formed. Fog-panting and exhausted they stand in this unreal world, in unreal misery—and I, like a stanza in a poem written in an unknown foreign tongue, am shaken to the core.
Santa Maria De Nieva, 14 October 1979
Seen from the air, the jungle below looked like kinky hair, seemingly peaceful, but that is deceptive, because in its inner being nature is never peaceful. even when it is denatured, when it is tamed, it strikes back at its tamers and reduces them to pets, rosy pigs, which then melt like fat in a skillet. This brings to mind the image, the great metaphor, of the pig in Palermo, which I heard had fallen into a sewer shaft: it lived down there for two years and continued to grow, surviving on the garbage that people threw down the shaft, and when they hauled the pig out, after it had completely blocked the drain, it was almost white, enormously fat, and had taken on the form of the shaft. it had turned into a kind of monumental, whitish grub, rectangular, cubic, and wobbly, an immense hunk of fat that could move only its mouth to eat, while its legs had shrunk and retracted into the body fat.
Iquitos, 8 December 1980
This morning, when I checked on the telex machine, Gloria was trying to make contact with the Narinho, the rusted-out ship that we had gotten to float here from Colombia, made buoyant with six hundred empty oil drums, but the onboard receiver must have been turned off. A young woman had shown up; she had no way to reach her husband, an electrician, who was on the ship. In the morning her child had been throwing up for two hours, then went into convulsions, and was suddenly dead. I did not know what I should say to the woman. She turned her face to the wall and cried; she had been keeping it in until then. I took her hand and held it, and when her silent sobbing had relaxed somewhat, I took her on the motorcycle and rode to the boat landing. The boatman did not want to set out because he was waiting for the cooks, but I hustled him off with the woman to the place where the Narinho was anchored. The woman was still very young, and it had been her first child, a son, only half a year old.
A still day, sultry. inactivity piled on inactivity, clouds staring down from the sky, pregnant with rain; fever reigns; insects taking on massive proportions. The jungle is obscene. everything about it is sinful, for which reason the sin does not stand out as sin. The voices in the jungle are silent; nothing is stirring, and a languid, immobile anger hovers over everything. The laundry on the line refuses to dry. As part of a conspiracy, flies suddenly descend on the table, their stomachs taut and iridescent. Our little monkey was wailing in his cage, and when I approached, he looked and wailed right through me to some distant spot outside where his little heart hoped to find an echo. I let him out, but he went back into his cage, and now he is continuing to wail there.
Iquitos, 18 December 1980
I have a snake on my roof again. A little while ago I heard something rustling up there, and then something dark fell into the banana fronds with a thwack. I took a look, and it was a poisonous brownish snake that had caught a bird, which was still peeping. I tried hitting the snake with a stick, but it disappeared like lightning into the grass. Only now and then did a blade quiver, and from the piteous cries of the bird I could tell where the snake was. I did not follow it into the grass, because I discovered that another snake was on the thatched roof, and directly above me a third snake was trying to get from a banana frond onto the platform of my hut. I tried to strike it with the machete, but the snake was too fast for me.
The power is still out. Evening descended on the countryside. What would happen if the rain forest wilted like a bouquet of flowers? Around me insects are dying, for which they lie on their backs. A woman in the neighborhood is suckling a newborn puppy after her baby died from parasites; I have seen this done before with piglets. Outside a bright moon is floating now above the treetops. The frogs, thousands of them, suddenly pause, as if they were following an invisible conductor, and start up again all at the same time. Their conversations come and go in curious waves. Waxy moonlight, as bright as neon, is shimmering on the banana fronds. I was called to the telephone in the house, and fell off the ladder that leads to my platform. It was one of very few phone calls that ever get through to us, and a stranger on the line was trying to make it clear to me that I was a madman, a menace to society. .. (more follows if you purchase the Paris Review issue here)
Read about Jasper Winn’s walk in Herzog’s footsteps here.