Burden of Dreams

Burden of Dreams
Director: Les Blank
Screenplay: Michael Goodwin
Features: Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski, Claudia Carindale, Jason Robards, Mick Jagger
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1982
Country: U.S.
Burden of Dreams DVD
What a burden!Documentaries and television programs about the making of movies are so common today that they have become banal. DVD releases almost always include featurettes about the various aspects of the film’s production, and specials on television and cable routinely take us “behind the scenes” to see the making of the next Hollywood blockbuster. Of course, as most savvy filmgoers know, the vast majority of such programs are purely commercial in nature, with the primary goal being to sell a product, rather than inform. This is borne out in the upbeat nature of such programs, with directors, writers, and actors waxing poetic about how “great” it was to work with so-and-so and behind-the-scenes footage that paints a portrait of orderly professionalism and efficiency.

Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, a behind-the-scenes documentary that was shot throughout the tortured production of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), is another beast altogether. Like Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s scintillating exploration of Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus Apocalypse Now (1979), Burden of Dreams is a portrait of filmmaking as potentially deadly obsession, even in the face of nearly insurmountable obstacles.

Amazingly enough, though, Fitzcarraldo director Werner Herzog comes across as strangely in control. A darling of the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s, Herzog was a renowned cinematic madman who didn’t mind shooting on an active volcano and was rumored to have pulled a gun on Klaus Kinski during the production of Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) in order to get the performance he wanted. However, even as the production of Fitzcarraldo seems to be imploding around him, he shows only a few signs of brittle frustration or outright anger. Granted, he is disposed to making rather extraordinary claims, such as when he declares that the jungle is evil or when he says that he will either live by Fitzcarraldo or end his life by it. Part of Herzog’s strange charm is that he makes such bold statements with a kind of blunt matter-of-factness that is, in its own way, extraordinarily demented.

Herzog began shooting Fitzcarraldo in 1979 in the remote jungles of South America, with Jason Robards and Mick Jagger in the two lead roles. Robards was to play the title character, a man who was obsessed with building an opera house in the jungle (it is not surprising that so many of Herzog’s characters are obsessive). The first problem occurs when the production becomes ensnarled in a dispute between indigenous Indian tribes, and they are forced to desert their location and find another one.

A year later, with new locations established 1,200 miles away from the original spot, production resumes; however, with 40% of the film in the can, Robards becomes deathly ill, returns to the United States, and is forbidden by his doctor from returning. Meanwhile, Mick Jagger must also leave the production to fulfill his commitment to a Rolling Stones tour. Thus, all the footage goes into the garbage, Herzog brings in a new leading man, the brilliant, but notoriously intemperate German actor Klaus Kinski (with whom he had worked on three previous films), and production begins all over again. That was hardly the end of the problems, however. At one point, several of the local crewmembers were attacked by a neighboring Indian tribe, and the camera later shows us the jagged scar on a man who was shot through the neck with a spear.

The central setpiece of both Fitzcarraldo and Burden of Dreams is a sequence in which a 130-ton iron steamship is literally dragged over a muddy hill. The dragging of this steamship is a perfect metaphor for Herzog’s brutal filmmaking regimen, which required as much actuality as possible. Refusing to use models, special effects, or even a ship made of lighter materials, Herzog insisted that the actual iron ship be dragged up an actual hill in the middle of an actual jungle in the remote environs of South America. The entire enterprise was deemed too dangerous by the Brazilian engineer who designed the mechanisms by which the ship would be dragged, and he walked off the production. In an interview, the engineer says quite frankly that there’s a 70% chance that something disastrous will happen.

Director Les Blank, who followed Herzog throughout the production, captures a wide range of moods and situations. While a large portion of the film is made up of talking-head interviews (most of which are with Herzog, who has such a fascinating screen presence that you almost wish he had gone through with his idea to play Fitzcarraldo himself), Blank’s camera tends to wander to the margins, focusing in on the insect life, or the native Indians making food, or a soccer game. He gives the film a great sense of texture and a lived-in feel; it’s not very long, but the pointed selection of footage and combination of production and context makes it feel as if it’s being laid out on a much larger canvas.

There are some definite omissions, most notably any instances of Kinski’s infamous temper tantrums (which were filmed and show up in Herzog’s 1999 documentary My Best Fiend). However, whatever is left outside the margins is made up for with the fascinating stuff we do see on screen, which unlike so many making-of documentaries we see today, shows us both the joys and the pains of bringing a labor of love to life.

Burden of Dreams Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English Dolby 1.0 Monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by director Les Blank, editor and sound recordist Maureen Gosling, and Fitzcarraldo director Werner Herzog
  • “Dreams and Burdens” video interview with Herzog
  • Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), a 20-minute film by Blank
  • Deleted scenes
  • Photo gallery of images taken by Gosling
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Essay by film scholar Paul Arthur
  • 80-page book of excerpts from Blank’s and Gosling’s production journals
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
    Release DateMay 10, 2004

    As one would expect from a documentary shot in the Peruvian jungles, Burden of Dreams was shot on 16mm, so it doesn’t have the smooth, slick look of 35mm. The transfer for this disc was taken from a 16mm interposititive and then digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System, so it looks about as good as one could expect. The image is slightly grainy, particularly in the darker scenes, but colors look very good throughout and detail is also solid.

    The monaural soundtrack, mastered from the magnetic track and digitally restored, sounds good throughout. It is clear, with no ambient hiss or distortion.

    The audio commentary features director Les Blank, editor and sound recordist Maureen Gosling, and Fitzcarraldo director Werner Herzog (Blank and Gosling were recorded together, while Herzog was recorded separately and edited in). The commentary is a good listen, with plenty of amusing and sometimes eye-opening anecdotes about the making of the film, which range from the difficulties of keeping raw film stock in good condition in the humid jungle environment, to Blank’s lamenting the lack of beer and how he had to make a single joint last six weeks.

    While Herzog doesn’t get a lot of air time during the commentary, he is the focus of “Dream and Burdens,” a new 38-minute video interview in which he reminisces about the production of both Fitzcarraldo and Burden of Dreams.

    Also included on the disc is Blank’s 20-minute 1980 short film Werner Herzog Eats His Show, the title of which is quite literal. Apparently, Herzog made a wager with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris that, if Morris completed his first feature film (Gates of Heaven), Herzog would eat his shoe. The film chronicles Herzog’s preparation of the leather shoe for consumption (which involves stuffing it with garlic and peppers and boiling it for several hours in water and duck fat and lots of pepper sauce) and then the actual eating, which took place on stage at one of the film’s premieres. It was because of this collaboration that Herzog chose Blank to film the production of Fitzcarraldo.

    The two deleted scenes are not quite that; they are actually scenes from Herzog’s 1999 documentary My Best Fiend, which used extra footage shot by Blank during the making of Fitzcarraldo. The two scenes together perfectly juxtapose the bipolar sides of Klaus Kinski: In one, he is screaming like a madman at the production manager about the food he’s supposed to eat, while in the other he is delicately playing with a butterfly.

    Other supplements include an extensive photo gallery, the original theatrical trailer, and an 80-page book of excerpts from Blank’s and Gosling’s production journals.

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright ©2005 The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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