Burden of Dreams (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” is one of the most astonishing movies I have ever seen. “Astonishing” is the perfect word to describe the work because I sat in my chair mouth agape and eyes wide open, very curious as to how the filmmaker, his crew, and the native Indians he hired managed to take a real three hundred ton steamship up a sizable hill with a steep slope in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. I admired the film for its sheer physicality and Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams” highlights the challenges everyone faced during the filming of Herzog’s masterpiece.
It is interesting to see footages of Jason Robards and Mick Jagger, playing Fitzcarraldo and the sidekick, respectively, given that they were the first choice to play the roles. I found them ineffective, sort of goofy, and so the two of them eventually having to drop out turned into a gift in disguise. Klaus Kinski was exactly right for the role, effortlessly evoking an obsessive madness but remaining accessible enough to make us want to see his dream of building an opera house in the jungle to be realized. From the clips of Robards playing Fitzcarraldo, there is little manic intensity that can be felt instantaneously.
The documentary spends ample time showing some of the native Indians’ culture, from the way they live, sorts of food they eat, to the challenges they face against the government because they have no legal claims to their land. We get a chance to see that although the crew and the natives must interact, they have separate camps nonetheless. They do not even share the same food. There is talk of sexual needs while being so isolated out in the wilderness and prostitutes having to be flown in for the sake of preserving the native culture.
It is well-known that Herzog is quite a character. His reputation is best exemplified when he talks about the very same arrows that hit a man in the throat and a woman in the hip. They survived and so Herzog is ecstatic to point out that there is still blood on the arrows. He plans on giving the weapons to his son. Just the same, we are able to appreciate how the director works. Not once is he shown sitting on a chair and enjoying a cup of coffee. He is constantly up and about, trying to perfect every little thing because he knows that no detail is too small. It is then that we know that Fitzcarraldo is a reflection of Herzog’s obsession and ambition.
Herzog’s final product is so audacious and convincing, it was a surprise to me that some of the native Indians are able to speak and understand Spanish from behind-the-scenes. Watching the film, I felt so immersed into its world that accepting the reality actually takes effort. I cannot say that about very many movies and that makes it special.
“Burden of Dreams” cements my respect for Herzog. Say what you will about him: difficult, talented, intelligent, disturbed, megalomaniacal. He might be all of those things but I admire that he is an uncompromising filmmaker—and it shows in his work, taking art on already high level and further pushing the boundary as if there is none.