Blank's Burden of Dreams depicts life imitating art
Issue date: 10/14/05 Section: Entertainment
In 1979, Werner Herzog began pre-production of his film Fitzcarraldo, the story about a man's journey through the Amazonian rainforest. The historical character of Fitzcarraldo wished to build an opera house deep in the jungle with the large wealth he had amassed from the rubber trade. However, to do so he needed to move a large steamship over a mountain into the adjacent river to continue his journey.
Herzog's production was troubled from the start when Fox refused to back his picture if it was filmed on location. As a result, Jack Nicholson was no longer able to participate. When production finally got underway, feuds with the natives made it necessary to change locations for the production. After 40 percent of the film was shot, lead actor Jason Robards became seriously ill and his doctor refused to allow him to return to the set. Furthermore, supporting actor Mick Jagger had to leave the production due to the numerous delays. The setbacks resulted in a conflict with Jagger's commitments for The Rolling Stones' tour of the Tattoo You album. It was then that Herzog had to find a new leading man. Herzog settled on Klaus Kinski, the star from his Aguirre: The Wrath of God picture. At that time, Kinski was known for his egomaniacal tendencies and short temper. Herzog decided that no one would be worthy of replacing Sir Mick, so he wrote Jagger's part out of the script.
To capture the madness of all the proceedings, Herzog invited documentary filmmaker Les Blank, a man who he describes as "low-key and unobtrusive," to the Amazon location. Although Herzog mentions that Blank seemed to show up at all the wrong moments, he later concedes that the moments in Blank's film, Burden of Dreams, were the most truly significant. Instead of focusing solely on the production, Blank focuses his lens on the exotic and vibrant biota of the Amazonian rain forest. In addition, Blank documents the culture of the Campa tribe extras who continue on with their daily lives during production. Their preparation of food and alcoholic drink, as well as routine activities such as passing around a soccer ball and washing clothes, is documented.
Rain and attacks by neighboring tribes continue to delay the film, cause Herzog to become increasingly pessimistic and nihilistic. It is fascinating to hear that Herzog swears he does not know the color of his own eyes, but not surprising to know that he hates introspection.
"If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams, and I never want to live like that. I live my life or end my life with this project," declares Herzog. His persistence is further recorded in Blank's oddly hilarious Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. One would expect that a man who holds so dearly to his dreams would take a look inside himself to maintain a foothold in reality. However, his hate for introspection benefits him when charging toward his goal of a finished picture. Dozens on the set get injured as the steamship repeatedly crashes against rock outcroppings down the river. During intimate interviews scattered through the film, Herzog relates that he feels cursed and that the devil must have some hand in the mishaps occurring on the set. In contrast, Blank's images show how the Amazonian jungle is not a place of "misery, obscenity, fornication and asphyxiation" as Herzog describes it. Rather, it is a place thriving with so much life that it simply cannot fit anymore.
The climax of Burden of Dreams involves the dragging of a 320-ton steamship up a small mountain. However, heavy rains, an undependable bulldozer and the laws of physics plague the shoot. The on-site engineer warns Herzog that the pulley mechanism operated by the indigenous peoples is likely to break and could injure many. Deciding to press on, Herzog finds a new engineer; it is not until many months later that the scene can be filmed and the picture completed. Herzog, like the character of Fitzcarraldo, shows his inability to face reality and his inconsideration for the safety of his crew. Luckily, no one is seriously harmed as a result of the production.
All dangers aside, Blank's Burden of Dreams depicts a genius filmmaker, Herzog, at the height of his talent and the peak of his insane ego. Blank brilliantly documents not only the production of the film, but the glorious natural and indigenous life surrounding its creation.
The Criterion Collection version of Burden of Dreams features a high-definition transfer, audio commentary by Blank and sound recordist Maureen Gosling, deleted scenes, an essay by scholar Paul Arthur, a photo gallery, theatrical trailer and an improved translation for the film's subtitles.
In addition, the set features an interview with Herzog entitled "Dreams and Burdens." The piece allows Herzog to explain some of the choices he made during filming and manages to reconcile most of them. Also included is Blank's 20-minute film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, in which Herzog, in fulfillment of a bet, literally cooks and eats one of his shoes. The credits comically show Herzog's shoes in a clear casting, one of them eaten to the sole, rotating on a podium. Lastly, the set includes a fascinating collection of journals by Blank and Gosling that detail their experiences on the set.
Burden of Dreams is essential viewing for fans of documentaries and lovers of film in general. Never has the essence of the Amazonian region and its encroachment by European culture been so poignantly captured on film.