Les Blank’s 1982 documentary, Burden Of Dreams, begins with helicopter footage of a formidable jungle. The shots display the jungle’s overwhelming size, incredible beauty and oppressive remoteness.
Who would dare to make a film in such a dense and inhospitable place?
Werner Herzog - who else?
It is the German director’s voice that we hear first. You want to know the story of the filming of Fitzcarraldo he asks. Well, he replies, it’s a strange story. A sisyphus-like story - a story about the “challenge of the impossible”.
What better way to start this examination of the making of one of Herzog’s most controversial films? What better way to describe both the film itself and its creation From these very opening minutes, Burden Of Dreams grabs its audience and begins what is a stunning filmmaking tale.
Fitzcarraldo is the story of a European man, Brian Fitzgerald, who lives in a small Peruvian village. Fitzcarraldo (so called because local villagers cannot pronounce his name) becomes obsessed with building an opera house in his town.
In order to achieve this dream, he needs to become a successful rubber baron. Fitzcarraldo comes up with an elaborate plan that calls for a dangerously impressive feat - bringing a massive boat over a mountain, with the help of a band of Peruvian villagers.
In his review of Herzog’s film, Roger Ebert said that Fitzcarraldo “is one of those brave and epic films, like Apocalypse Now or 2001, where we are always aware both of the film, and of the making of the film. Herzog could have used special effects for his scenes of the 360-tonne boat being hauled up a muddy 40-degree slope in the jungle, but he believed we could tell the difference.”
The decision to avoid the use of special effects for this incredible scene is just one of the shocking and, perhaps, questionable decisions that Herzog made in order to make his film as authentic as possible.
The first involves his choice of location - the constraints of his story meant that only a very few places fit the bill. In November 1979, Herzog built a camp for his cast and crew in the dense tropical rainforest, close to the Ecuadorian border.
As Burden Of Dreams explains, the geography may have been perfect, but Herzog had walked into the middle of an extremely tense situation. Only 25 miles away, Peru and Ecuador were building up to a small border war. The jungle was full of soldiers.
Meanwhile, the documentary highlights the strain within the rainforest itself. The native Indian population were unhappy about the increasing numbers of people - in addition to lumber and oil companies - settling on their land (to which they had no title).
While Herzog manages to persuade the Indian tribe of his good (or at least temporary) intentions, filmmaking harmony does not last long. Fitzcarraldo was soon beset by damaging and destabilizing rumours and threats of violence. As a result, the director had to begin again. It took 13 months to find a new camp, which involved moving cast and crew 1,500 miles north to the Peruvian city of Iquitos.
Fitzcarraldo was financed largely as a result of the casting of Jason Robards as Fitzcarraldo and Mick Jagger. However, with 40 percent of the film completed, Robards contracted a nasty case of amebic dysentery (is there any other kind?) and, having flown back to the US to recover, was unable to carry on with the film.
Herzog replaced Robards with Klaus Kinski. However, due to the delays and his music commitments, Jagger dropped out too - a move Herzog describes as the biggest loss of his career to date. It is at this stage in Burden Of Dreams that we really see the heavy toll the film is taking on the director.
The challenges of making Fitzcarraldo were far from over, however. The film continued to be beset by problems and yet, incredibly, Herzog soldiered on. He tells the documentary team that if he were to abandon this project he would be a man without dreams and he doesn’t (nor, indeed, hasn’t) want to live like that.
Les Blank, who also felt the strain of making a film about the making Fitzcarraldo, reveals the true burden of this dream. We understand the dangers. We see the brutal and unforgiving landscape that, in one iconic scene, Herzog describes as “the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder” - a place he loves against his better judgement.
Herzog’s insights are priceless - always entertaining and often thought-provoking. Blank’s documentary highlights many of the themes (concerning the beautiful chaos of a cruel and unforgiving world) that Herzog would return to explore in many of this own documentaries.
Burden Of Dreams takes us on a gripping, fascinating and shocking journey into the heart of one man’s desire (determination or obsession?) to tell a fantastical story with the utmost authenticity. And, against all the odds, Herzog achieved his dream.
Filmmaking Documentary Recommendations
Burden Of Dreams is part of Documentary 7.
If you enjoyed this movie, I would also recommend:
I would also like to include the following honourable mentions: Lost In La Mancha, Cameraperson, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films, Best Worst Movie and The Kid Stays In The Picture.
Do you have any filmmaking documentaries that you would like to recommend? If so, do let us know in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.