I use the phrase “Conqueror of the Useless” in my bios and descriptions. If you’ve never heard of Werner Herzog, I’m terribly sorry. But please, do yourself a favor and listen to the German filmmaker’s musings on the harmony of nature’s “overwhelming and collective murder.” Then we’ll have a starting point.
Herzog referred to himself, and the protagonist of his film Fitzcarraldo, as a “conquistador of the useless” in the documentary film Burden of Dreams (1982, Les Blank) that records the excruciating making-off process of the film. If you have ever wanted to watch a filmmaker dragging a steamship over mountains in the Amazon to make a film about a ne’er do well Irishman and opera-lover (played with manic genius by Klaus Kinksi) who must drag a steamship over a mountain to harvest the rubber he intends to use to finance an opera house in the jungle, here’s your shot.
Over the course of the shooting of the film, Herzog dealt with some unfriendly indigenous people, and some who offered to murder his infamously insane star Kinski for him. He was forced to recast the film after both DiNero and Mick Jagger had to abandon the project due to delays in production and funding difficulties. And, of course, Herzog faced the very real challenge of actually dragging the steamship over a mountain in the Amazon in a fashion that he could film to look as though it were being done with native labor in the 19th century.
Both the movie and the documentary explore the muddy, dirty, up-hill battle facing the brave human soul who searches for beauty and art in a jungle of murderous intention towards human aspiration. That is “conquering the useless.” Beauty and art may not feed the belly or pay the bills, but I wouldn’t call this living without those things.
At the very least, he had Claudia Cardinale co-starring. That’s beauty I’m certain lightened his load. And both films do end happily. Herzog pulled off an “unfilmable” film, and well, I’ll let you see how Fitzcarraldo fares for yourself. But you’ll smile.
What mud will you crawl through to find one thing of beauty to hold to in your life? What burdens do your dreams bring? How do you face the daily, up-hill slog? Good luck. It’s a jungle out there, and it wants you dead. Vae victus!