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Biography & Memoirs

A New Grammar of Images

By Laura Kolbe

The 64-year-old German filmmaker Werner Herzog has long been as famous for his statements about film and culture as he has been for his actual movies. In speech and in writing, he inclines to aphorism rather than argument, issuing dicta with a hermetic self-containment bordering on the inscrutable. The 300-page Herzog on Herzog (2002) reads this way, as does his 12-point “Minnesota Declaration”, an impromptu manifesto delivered at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis in 1999. Herzog’s aphorisms teeter between the visionary and the bizarre, as these two points of the “Declaration” attest:

    5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.

    10. The moon is dull. Mother Nature doesn’t call, doesn’t speak to you, although a glacier eventually farts. And don’t you listen to the Song of Life.

Herzog has become an object of cinematic fascination in his own right. Director Les Blank has made two documentaries starring his colleague: Burden of Dreams (1982) follows the making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980) features Herzog cooking and devouring a leather boot while delivering pronouncements on the near-extinction of imagination, the need for artistic daring, and the difference between fact and truth. The collective word count of Herzog’s pronouncements about art and culture probably exceeds the words spoken by his characters onscreen (despite a prolific 55-film career). A master of elegant strangeness, Herzog has profited by this canny ability to expound and practice an artistic philosophy.

Werner Herzog at a press conference in Brussels (photo by Erinc Salor; Wikimedia Creative Commons licence)

Werner Herzog at a press conference in Brussels (photo by Erinc Salor; Wikimedia Creative Commons licence)

Once again, Herzog has managed to have his shoe and eat it, too. In Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog publishes the diary he kept from 1979 to 1981 while shooting (or, more often, waiting to shoot) his acclaimed film about a bombastic anti-hero in the Brazilian jungle. Thanks to Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, the plagued history of Fitzcarraldo already holds a notorious place in filmmaking mythology: assistants died; actors became injured and ill; some of the local extras plotted to kill hot-blooded star Klaus Kinski. Typically, Herzog took these incidents as cosmic portents, telling Blank: “The trees here are in misery. The birds here are in misery – I don’t think they sing; they just screech in pain.” The essence of the jungle is “fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away”.

A darling of cineasts and prize committees, Werner Herzog is savvier than the humorless neurotic he sometimes plays on-screen and in his journals. He is fully aware of the cartoonishness of his morose Weltanschauung, but seems to relish situating himself at the juncture of comedy, melodrama, and nihilism. Of Conquest of the Useless’s 320 pages, this sort of vague cosmological pessimism probably accounts for some 50. The book finally shifts from being very funny (though we are never sure whether Herzog is an accomplice or an object of our laughter) to slightly dull.

That said, Conquest of the Useless is a singular book, so strong at many points that it could be read and appreciated by someone who had never seen a single Herzog film. In Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Herzog says: “Our civilization doesn’t have adequate images… That’s what I’m working on: a new grammar of images.” Without them, he says, we are doomed to “die out like dinosaurs.”

In contrast with this “new grammar of images”, Herzog sets the false images offered by television and advertisements. These “kill us” and “kill our language” because they lull instead of provoke, working within a familiar spectrum of wonder, desire, and repulsion. Herzog’s films can be interpreted as antidotes to this deadening complacency, and the countless strange moments in Conquest of the Useless as yet another curative, this time through the medium of language.

The book’s images of grotesque surrealism arrive abruptly amidst more mundane descriptions of weather or squabbling actors. In a sudden, peculiar flash they suggest whole worlds abutting Herzog’s, yet with utterly different codes of behavior, stores of knowledge, and interpretations of reality. In “Iquitos” a tiny boy named Modus Vivendi earns a living playing the violin at funerals. Children steal a bit of sound tape from Herzog’s crew and tie it between two trees, so tight that the wind makes it “hum and sing.” At festivals men shoot each other with bows and arrows, the recipient catching the shaft midair before it hits its mark. A large moth sits on Herzog’s dirty laundry and “feasts on the salt from [his] sweat.” In the crew’s shipment of provisions they order kilos of arrow-tip poison, which serves as local currency. “For a spoonful of this black sticky mass, you can get yourself a woman to marry, I was told in a respectful whisper by a boatman as he cleaned his toes with a screwdriver.” Such surprises exemplify the newness to Herzog’s “grammar of images”, a newness that is not simply indicative of their shock value but illustrative of a voracious curiosity about how other beings survive, and sometimes enjoy, their passage through the world.

In Conquest of the Useless, Herzog may have stumbled across the genre to which his writing is best suited. The journal form provides an inherent structure, in which seasons change, personalities clash and reconcile and clash again, and budgets dwindle. All Herzog has to do from time to time is log the current conditions of all these factors, and the drama writes itself. This single linear structure is steady and comprehensible enough to accommodate a great deal of eccentricity and divagation, and the reader never feels mired in the wash of surreal imagery and quasi-philosophic musing. With entries averaging three or four paragraphs, few feel overstuffed with detail.

When Herzog simply shows what’s there, the result is breathtaking, and even a reader unacquainted with Herzog’s work could imagine why Francois Truffaut called him “the greatest film director alive”. What spoils some of these images, however, is Herzog’s occasional habit of glossing or interpreting them for us. This can result in cringe-worthy purple prose: “In its all-encompassing, massive misery, of which it has no knowledge and no hint of a notion, the mighty jungle stood completely still for another night, which, however, true to its innermost nature, it didn’t allow to go unused for incredible destruction, incredible butchery.”

Fitting this “grammar of images” into an argument or philosophy is often misguided. Herzog’s attempts at articulating a convincing credo fail, but his rendering of the world’s strange particulars achieves the “ecstatic truth” which for him is both the aim and the content of art. Herzog scholars will perhaps read Conquest of the Useless with the goal of supplementing their understanding of his astonishing films. Doing so risks overlooking the value of Conquest as a work of art itself. The pleasures of the word are different from the pleasures of the camera. Herzog’s strange and original voice, by mediating a place and mood through language rather than footage, provides yet another new grammar by which imagination speaks.

Werner Herzog: Conquest of the Useless. Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo
Ecco: New York 2009
ISBN-13: 978-0061575532
Hardcover, 320 pages, US$ 24.99

 Laura Kolbe is an MPhil student at Jesus College, Cambridge, where she is studying American Literature.

This article first appeared in The Oxonian Review, issue 9.2; reproduced with permission.


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