“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 imagines 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.
The movie and its making are both fables of daft aspiration, investigations of the blurry border between having a dream and losing one’s mind. So it’s no surprise that in some ways, the back story has lingered longer than the story. The trials of “Fitzcarraldo” have already been the subject of one superb documentary, Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams,” and a book by the same name (edited by Blank and James Bogan). And Herzog himself 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.”
To those fragments of illumination 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.)
(For Rino =)