Director Werner Herzog the man behind the Oscar-nominated Antarctica documentary Encounters at the End of the World has cultivated a loyal band of admirers over the span of five decades behind the camera. Perhaps the single most striking image of his career is that of a steamboat being pushed and pulled through a dense Peruvian jungle, from his 1982 epic, Fitzcarraldo a physical feat that was filmed on location without the aid of special effects. It was a virtuoso climax to an all-but-impossible film shoot a two-year journey into the jungle that found Herzog drained of funds, battling the elements and stuck in the cross fire of a border war. As his personal form of therapy, Herzog meticulously recorded his experiences in his journal; some 300 pages of those musings thoroughly shocking accounts of a film production brought to the brink have been converted into the book Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo. (Listen to TIME's full interview with Herzog in the audio player to the left.)
The first thing that jumped out at me in this book is how many times you almost die. I think maybe I lost count at five. There's an airplane breaking apart on the runway; there's an allergic reaction to a penicillin injection; there's the time when your boat crashes in the rapids. You jump into the water at one point and barely miss some submerged pylons.
Well, that was a situation where I jumped in joy from a pier about 30 feet high into the murky waters, not knowing that just two, three feet under the surface there were gigantic tree trunks stabilizing this whole thing. I didn't see them; I dove down headfirst and brushed it with a shoulder. That could have killed me, but it would have been from sheer stupidity, and I would hate to die from stupidity.
In the preface of the book, you talk about how you didn't really want to go back to these writings. Why were you averse?
I couldn't do it. It was so terrifying that I never touched it, and something like 15 years later I tried to decipher some of this miniature handwriting it was really microscopic and after 20 or 30 pages, I just stopped. A few years ago, my wife Lena encouraged me to go at it, and all of a sudden it fell into place easily. I could read it, though of course I needed some special magnifying glasses.
As you were poring over your memories, were there things you had forgotten or that you now found particularly fascinating or traumatizing to experience all over again?
Many things I had forgotten, yes. Traumatizing no, I wouldn't say that. I have enough stability inside of me to not be traumatized. If I were a soldier, I would not be the one to come back with posttraumatic stress disorder, because I think I have fortified myself with enough philosophy.
Reading your stories, I was reminded of the problems Francis Ford Coppola faced with Apocalypse Now. You say at one point in the book that you were flat broke and that you traded two bottles of shampoo for four kilos of rice. Is that the low point?
The distinction between Apocalypse Now and my film is that Coppola always resolved films with ready cash. There was always a lot of money flowing around. In my case, because I had to produce the film myself, I was down to the utmost limit. So I lived in a chicken coop and had nothing to eat anymore. But I remembered from Miami I had two bottles of shampoo well, one was shampoo and the other was conditioner and I traded it at the local market for four kilos of rice, and I ate rice for three or four weeks. That's how I survived. No one can imagine how far down I was sometimes.
Was that the low point?
There were lower points because there were more dramatic events, like if you're building a camp for 1,100 people in the middle of the jungle and a border war breaks out and local people attack your camp and burn it to the ground. That's a serious sort of thing. Besides that, there were accusations that I was committing human rights abuses which were all fabricated and a tribunal was set up against me. These things are hard to handle, and of course I still feel the pain.
It's also what makes the book quite dramatic. I'm wondering if you're too close to the book to really appreciate how shocking these revelations are.
That's probably the reason I couldn't touch it for over 20 years, and my own wife, who knows me well, only managed to read up to page 80 and cannot continue. It's so hard for her to take what I have gone through ... it's something which deeply touched my existence.
Do you see any parallels between yourself and the character of Fitzcarraldo this person with this epic dream who will not be stymied by any obstacles that are thrown his way?
It's strange that you're asking this, because during the shooting of the film, when I lost [Jason] Robards and [Mick] Jagger out of the cast, for a while I thought the task of moving this monstrous ship over the mountain was so close to what I had to do that I could actually play the part of Fitzcarraldo. If I don't find a real fine actor, I thought, I'm going to do it myself it was that close. But I'm glad, and thank God on my knees that it didn't come to that. And in a way, when you look at the film or the book, it's almost like a paradigm of how to struggle in achieving something artistic. It didn't matter what you threw at me, what nature would throw at me, I would deal with it.
Are there any more books coming up in the near future?
Yes. I've thought about publishing more texts, because ultimately I think I write better than I make films. I don't think it's completely far-fetched to say that Conquest of the Useless, the prose book, will outlive the film. Writing is very dear to my heart, and it may come more strongly in the future.