The Explorer Rescued by Viggo Mortensen

Source: El Pais

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Presentation of 'Hijos de la Selva' at Museu Blau, Barcelona - 19 February 2015
Presentation of 'Hijos de la Selva' at Museu Blau,....
© EFE.
What do Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and Diego Alatriste have in common with the scrawny, clumsy and unfortunate German anthropologist Max Schmidt, who died of leprosy and in oblivion in Asunción (Paraguay) in 1950, surrounded by the rheas he bred? The answer is: Viggo Mortensen. The famous actor who portrayed the two valiant literary characters on the big screen has been instrumental in the rescue of Schmidt, "a true antihero," he says, by releasing from his publishing company (Perceval Press,) Sons of the Forest, a large format book that restores the memory of the ethnologist and explorer and at the same time offers a selection of his sensational ethnographic photographs, especially those taken during his fieldwork among the indigenous peoples of the Brazilian Mato Grosso and the Paraguayan Chaco.

Yesterday in Barcelona, Mortensen, presented the book for which he is the publisher, along with the two authors, anthropologists Federico Bossert and Diego Villar, who have conscientiously researched the life and work of Schmidt in order to present an overview of the life and work of an undeservedly forgotten, sensational character. The event took place in the Museu Blau, the site of the Barcelona Natural Science Museum, with the predictable expectation aroused by the presence of the actor. Acting as master of ceremonies, archaeologist, naturalist and also explorer, Jordi Serrallonga placed the figure of Schmidt at the level of greats like Alexander von Humboldt, Darwin and Alfred Wallace, no less, or the modern colossuses of anthropology like Malinowski and Margaret Mead.

Viggo Mortensen, worn out shoes, denim shirt and jacket, very attractive (even at a short distance - those sparkling grey eyes and that little scar on his lip) was obliging about the interest aroused by his presence (a young journalist kept sighing and muttering "so handsome" while she was taking notes) and patiently let himself be photographed, although he emphasized that in no way was he the real protagonist of the event: "I didn't write the book; I'm only publishing it. He explained that Bossert and Villar suggested that he publish the volume and that they are planning to do two more together, also on the subject of anthropology. "The Andrés Barbero Ethnographic Museum of Asunción preserves Schmidt´s legacy and we went there to see what there was." He died of leprosy and people, out of ignorance and apprehension, in order to avoid contagion, burned a good part of his belongings, field notebooks, maps, ethnographic objects, textiles - but things remained and it was very exciting to touch the glass photographic plates, taking them out of their old wooden boxes." In fact, Bossert and Villar told me later on that in the very pathetic last stages of Schmidt's life, they gave him his food by pushing it to him with a stick. Mortensen continued, "I'm not a scientist; I publish art, photography and poetry books. I saw those extraordinary, incredibly beautiful Schmidt photos and I understood that they have scientific interest, but that they are also art. The idea has been to make a book with artistic as well as academic value."

The actor rated the photographs as "incredible" and highlighted above all the "beautiful portraits" that reminded him of Edward Curtis' work with the indigenous peoples of North America. The selection of the photographs, shared between the actor and the anthropologists, offers a double perspective of academic interest and artistic taste. Among the photos are several in which Schmidt himself appears, a fragile, skin-and-bones figure. Mortensen himself wrapped the fragile plates in cloths and took them to the US to make new copies with better digital resolution.

The actor from Eastern Promises emphasized that besides the scientific part, there is in Schmidt "a vital adventure with something out of a novel and Conradian," which is also reflected in the book. "He was a pioneer of going places, of dealing with people. There´s a lovely little thing" - as the actor expressed himself this way, there was an exchange of adoring glances in the room - "and it's that he didn't look at those people with superiority or prejudice." Regarding this, he read a passage from the ethnographer. "How often I envied the Indians when I realized how physically superior they were to Europeans, seeing them enter a forest full of thorns completely naked, and come out without even a scratch."

Mortensen has great respect and admiration for Schmidt. "This humble and solitary gentleman, with his notebooks, his collections, in an atmosphere of peace and acceptance, seems in a way to have been happy; the simplicity of his life makes me feel a certain envy." On Schmidt's tombstone in a cemetery in Asunción, it reads: "Per silvas pro homines et scientia." "He went to the forest for men and science," a beautiful and enviable epitaph.

Villar for his part emphasized Max Schmidt's (born Altona, [Germany] 1864 - died Asunción, [Paraguay] 1950) pioneering role in the history of anthropology on its way from an armchair science to the modern discipline. And he compared him to the "arrogant" Malinowski. "What he did, Schmidt had done twenty years earlier, but Schmidt was ignored - perhaps for being German, because he settled down in Paraguay, because he didn't know how to sell himself and was ungainly, very thin, the antithesis of the hero explorer." Essentially Schmidt's career was based on his three trips to the Brazilian Xingú (tr. note: a Brazilian area by the river of the same name) at the beginning of the twentieth century and then his work in Chaco [tr. note: northeastern province of Argentina and Paraguay]. Apparently the man was really jinxed, something that also makes him more approachable to us." Aside from his leprosy, he suffered from chronic malaria, went on extremely minimalist expeditions, almost alone, the canoe sank, all the mosquitoes bit him, piranhas and snakes bit him, the forest people often took his meager possessions…" He never gained access to prestigious academic circles. "However his is a legacy that was vital to recover."

Bossert pointed out that the great value of Schmidt's photos is not only that he is showing a prolonged view of life in the Mato Grosso and Chaco, but also the transformation experienced by that life. He recalled that Schmidt belonged to a German ethnographic tradition that believed it was fundamental to preserve the memory of the forms of indigenous life. "Although he never idealized it."

Schmidt might have been jinxed, but he had guts. He enchanted the Bakairi warriors of the Curisevo river [tr.note: in Brazil] by playing the violin. "He was one of the first explorers to enter certain areas of the Mato Grosso and in fact, was in places in which the famous Colonel Fawcett got lost." Behind Schmidt's explorations and research, "there was a more personal story." One of intimate longing to enter the forest alone and merge with it and its people. He would plunge naked into the water with them and he got tattooed. That path was also "a succession of failures" which make our ethnographer a quixotic figure. There are many enigmas in Schmidt. He left Germany shortly before the rise of Hitler and Mortensen and the two anthropologists believe that it's not difficult to suppose that his vision of other peoples made him completely opposed to the racist Nazi paradigm. But there is no evidence of his views in that regard.

Given the actor's fascination with Schmidt, a question was unavoidable: Isn't there going to be a movie? "He's an incredible character, beautiful; I'm very grateful that we were able to rescue this worthwhile figure. His adventure is very interesting, with those travels, those terrible, awkward experiences. They are the stuff of stories, and, of course, films; it could be one, a very Conradian film. I gave the book to the director Lisandro Alonso, with whom I made Jauja. He liked it a lot. I think he is talking about doing something, but knowing him, it won't be a very academic thing. Anyway, at the moment there are no plans for a film. Schmidt would be a good subject for a documentary."
Last edited: 7 March 2015 11:49:19
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