That Time Werner Herzog Went to the Jungle and Was Overwhelmed By Misery

"The birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain."
April 6, 2017, 2:00pm

Nothing is certain but death and taxes. And perhaps the overwhelming and collective murder of the jungle.

In 1981, Werner Herzog found himself neck-deep in the Amazon. He was producing the movie Fitzcarraldo, which, if you haven't seen it, is a deeply pessimistic take on nature philosophy archetypes. It is the opposite of Emerson and Thoreau. It assumes nothing about the wilderness, other than its guaranteed entropy. It is disturbing.

Superficially, Fitzcarraldo portrays an aspiring Irish rubber baron, Brian Sweeney "Fitzcarraldo" Fitzgerald. We see his futile foray into the Amazon Basin, as he searches for a lost patch of rubber trees. His descent into madness is palpable, and seems entirely fueled by the jungle's lack of remorse. (Fitzcarraldo also deals with some seriously antiquated impressions of Indigenous peoples, and it should be noted that Herzog exploited the Aguaruna tribespeople he employed. They would later set fire to his set.)

Almost immediately, the film was plagued with the very dilemmas it aimed to reenact. Crew members drowned or became ill. Planes crashed. Klaus Kinski, the star of the movie, allegedly hated Herzog's guts.

Herzog penned this journal entry on December 8, 1980, while embedded in the Amazon:

"This morning I woke up to terror such as I have never experienced before: I was entirely stripped of feeling. Everything was gone; it was as if I had lost something that had been entrusted to me the previous evening, something I was supposed to take special care of overnight. I was in the position of someone who has been assigned to guard an entire sleeping army, but suddenly finds himself mysteriously blinded, deaf, and effaced. Everything was gone. I was completely empty, without pain, without longing, without love, without warmth and friendship, without anger, without hate. Nothing, nothing was there anymore, and I was left like a suit of armor with no knight inside. It took a long time before I even felt alarmed."

All of this was documented in Burden of Dreams by Les Blank in 1982. Blank wrote of the project: "I'm tired of it all and I couldn't care less if they…finish the fucking film."

Below are two are excerpts from Burden of Dreams, and I pray they're never taken down from YouTube. I think about them at least once per month. Their contents are simultaneously hilarious, authentic, and threatening. Everyone should watch them.

"Of course there is a lot of misery, but it is the same misery that's all around us. The trees here are in misery. The birds are in misery. I don't think they sing, they just screech in pain," Herzog says to the camera, perched in front of a vaguely phallic fern.

"Nature here is violent," he adds. "I would see fornication, and asphyxiation, and choking. And fighting for survival, and growing, and just rotting away."

As someone who writes about the environment, Herzog's weird, dejected experience in the jungle haunts me. Especially now, as humans and ecosystems grapple for dominance, the latter on a losing trajectory. Does the world that Herzog described still even exist? How can we view nature as omnipotent when we're terraforming it to be inhospitable to life?

I choose not to be as fatalistic as the filmmaker. Mostly because I believe in the merits of conservation, and our ability to understand and manage ecosystems for long-term sustainability.

But it's the age of the Anthropocene—the era of humans—and the fate of our planet has never been less certain. Climate change is changing species on a genetic level. By 2050, as many as 150 million people could be displaced by global warming. We are, atmospherically, threatening to send ourselves back to the Triassic Era, some 251 to 199 million years ago.

If there's one constant in the universe, for now, it's death. From parasites to apex predators, Herzog understood that nature would claim us all. To fight it, like Fitzcarraldo, would be foolish.

"Fog-panting and exhausted [the trees] stand in this unreal world, in unreal misery," Herzog once wrote. "I did not see God today."