(1982) Directed by Les Blank; Written by Michael Goodwin (Narration); Narrated by Candace Laughlin; Starring: Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Mick Jagger; Available on DVD
“When I came back to Germany, and I had to hold all the investors together, they said to me, ‘Well, how can you continue? Do you have the strength or the will or the enthusiasm?’ And I said, ‘How can you ask this question? If I abandoned this project, I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project.’” – Werner Herzog (on continuing with the film after production came to a halt)
There are times when the story behind the film eclipses the film itself. Les Blank’s remarkable documentary Burden of Dreams is such an example. Much more than a “making of” feature, Burden of Dreams chronicles the arduous journey that Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) took, from pre-production to shooting. It’s a tale of obsession, hubris and persistence, as Herzog faces every imaginable conflict along the way: man against the elements, man against man, and man against himself
Fitzcarraldo was plagued with problems from the start, with the filmmaker setting up camp in the wrong place at the wrong time, amidst a tribal land dispute in Peru. Tensions reached a critical point, due to mistrust by the indigenous population of Aguaruna people, which fueled baseless rumors of atrocities committed by Herzog and crew. Fearing for their safety if they remained in the region, the team of filmmakers were forced to flee, and their camp was burned to the ground by the tribe. But the problems didn’t end there. Production eventually resumed in another Peruvian location, with Jason Robards* in the title role of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (aka: “Fitzcarraldo”), and Mick Jagger as his sidekick Wilbur. With 40 percent of shooting completed, Robards contracted amoebic dysentery, again, forcing everything to a screeching halt. Jagger, due to other professional obligations (i.e., The “Tattoo You” album and tour), left the project. Herzog and crew returned to the Amazon for another attempt to film his story, now with Klaus Kinski*/**/*** in the lead (his fourth collaboration with Herzog).
* Fun Fact #1: At one point, Herzog considered Jack Nicholson for the main character, but considered other options after 20th Century Fox made too many demands (including shooting in a studio and using a model for Fitzcarraldo’s ship).
** Fun Fact #2: According to the film’s editor, Maureen Gosling, the ever-mercurial, self-centered Kinski, became jealous over the attention given to his co-star, José Lewgoy, and sequestered himself in his hut.
*** Fun Fact #3: As a last resort, Herzog considered casting himself as Fitzcarraldo.
A new camp was constructed when production eventually resumed two years later in northeastern Peru. Members of the Machiguenga and Ashaninka (or Campa) tribes provided labor, while many served as extras. Filming in a remote jungle location, far from the vestiges of urban life, presented many logistical challenges. Supplies were flown in by small airplanes, and on-site medics provided first aid – a necessity when two indigenous extras were hit by arrows fired by members of a rival tribe. By far, however, the biggest hurdle was Herzog’s insistence on pulling a real steamship up a mountain (which Herzog asserted was the central metaphor of his film).* Two vintage turn-of-the-century ships stood in for the SS Molly Aida – one would endure the treacherous Amazonian rapids, while the other was slated to be dragged uphill. Convinced that the attempt to drag a 100-plus-ton ship up a mountain would end in tragedy, the Brazilian engineer left the project, and was subsequently replaced by a Peruvian engineer (Mini spoiler: Thankfully, the feat was accomplished without serious injury or loss of life).
* Fun Fact #4: Herzog wanted audiences to be able to “trust their eyes again,” rather than be fooled by effects trickery.
Unlike the film’s colorful subject, Herzog (who often placed himself front-and-center in his own documentaries), Les Blank chose a more unobtrusive style, preferring to stay out of the frame. Suiting his more introverted nature, Blank tried to keep interference to a minimum, allowing the behind-the-scenes drama to unfold, rather than forcing conflict. According to Herzog, Blank seemed to intuitively recognize when a significant, filmable moment would emerge.
Considering the mental and physical toll on Fitzcarraldo’s cast and crew, one might wonder if any movie is worth the strife. Seven people died during the production, although none of those deaths (including a plane crash and a drowning) were directly related to filming. As three months turned into six months, spirits soured among the indigenous laborers and cast members,* many of whom were away from their families, and unfamiliar with living in such close quarters over a protracted amount of time. All the while, living conditions, with regard to food and sanitation continued to erode. In a 2005 interview Herzog lamented being vilified by some human rights groups and critics for exploiting the indigenous people.** He attested that he paid three times the going rate for indigenous workers in Peru (which was undoubtedly a pittance, compared to workers performing the same jobs in the U.S. and Europe). In the end, it’s open to debate whether he provided gainful employment or just wanted to benefit from cheap labor.
* Fun Fact #5: As most of the indigenous extras/workers were male, the filmmakers hired female prostitutes to (ahem) elevate the morale in the camp.
** Fun Fact #6: To Herzog’s credit, he was instrumental in helping the Machiguengas secure a land title.
Werner Herzog’s excellent 1999 documentary My Best Fiend (which incorporated some footage from Burden of Dreams), covered his often tumultuous professional relationship with actor Klaus Kinski, and clearly paints the director as a victim. Blank took a more balanced approach, with Herzog’s endeavors as the central focus, but there are many other factors at play. Burden of Dreams at once paints a nuanced portrait of a filmmaker bordering on megalomania and a man going to great lengths to realize his vision (much like the character, Fitzcarraldo). Whether you consider Herzog schlepping a ship up a mountain an engineering marvel or folly, it crystallizes the Sisyphean struggle that most creative people face to some extent. Similarly, negotiating the Amazonian rapids (the “Pongo de los Muertos”), symbolizes an uncompromising artist navigating his way through a world of meddling studio executives, Hollywood sycophants and diminished expectations. Herzog asserts that we need to embrace our dreams to make ourselves whole. Without them, we are merely shadows of ourselves.
Sources for this article: Criterion DVD commentary by Les Blank, Maureen Gosling and Werner Herzog; “Dreams and Burdens,” 2005 interview with Werner Herzog