Burden of Dreams
November 19, 2005
Before George Hickenlooper showed the artistic hubris and madness that swirled around the making of Apocalypse Now (1979) in his documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), and Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe showed how external forces can undo a movie before it has barely gotten started in Lost in La Mancha (2002), Les Blank showed both in Burden of Dreams (1982), Werner Herzog’s perilous journey trying to make Fitzcarraldo (1982). Jason Robards and Mick Jagger were going to star in a movie based on a real historical figure who tried to build an opera house deep in the jungles of South America.
In 1979, Herzog planned to make the movie in the rainforests near the border of Ecuador and Peru. He found the ideal location but at the time a border war was escalating between the two countries because of lumber and oil interests. The natives in the area were unhappy because the Amazon jungle was being decimated by outsiders and viewed Herzog and his crew with suspicion. This quickly escalated when the tabloid press claimed that the filmmaker was raping and pillaging the land. Death threats and strife between two tribes forced Herzog and his crew to flee for their lives as their set was burned down by angry natives.
He relocated 1,500 miles north in Peru but five weeks in Robards got a severe case of dysentery and had to leave the production. Jagger followed soon afterwards forcing Herzog to start all over again. Filming didn’t begin again until April 1981 with Klaus Kinski replacing Robards and Claudia Cardinale as his love interest. Herzog’s problems didn’t go away, they just changed. He moved the production to a new, more remote location and found himself at the mercy of the weather, the environment and his greatest opponent: time.
One has to admire Herzog’s tenacity in the face of the many frustrating problems that he faced during the course of the production. Clearly at the end of his tether and feeling the strain, Herzog says, at one point, “I am running out of fantasy.” Yet, he gamely plugged ahead, vowing to finish the movie if it was the last thing he ever did. Three months of shooting dragged on to six months, angering some of the natives working on the movie that had become bored and homesick, driving the morale to an all-time low.
Fitzcarraldo’s crazy mission to push a massive 300 ton boat up a mountain becomes a metaphor for Herzog making the movie. It’s a dangerous, uphill battle that could easily fail if not for the determination of both men. Burden of Dreams is a fascinating look at the creative process of an artist with a definite vision and how he realizes it despite insurmountable odds.
Accompanying the DVD are excerpts from Maureen Gosling’s diary that she kept while filming the documentary in South America. This is a nice addition to the commentary track.
There is an audio commentary by director Les Blank, editor Maureen Gosling and filmmaker Werner Herzog. Blank talks about how he got involved in the project and met Herzog. He and Gosling give us the inside story of what happened during the two times they were on location—the hardships and challenges that they endured. Herzog talks about the outside pressures, like the bad press that distorted what was really going on. This is a solid track jam-packed with information that is customary of most Criterion releases.
Blank’s first exposure to Herzog was on the short film, “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.” To inspire then up-and-coming filmmaker Errol Morris to complete his first movie, Gates of Heaven (1978), Herzog promised to eat his shoe if it was completed. Blank was on hand to document the event at the premiere of Gates of Heaven and also shows Herzog preparing his shoes beforehand in this amusing short film.
“Dreams and Burdens” is a new interview with Herzog that was recorded in January 2005. He admits to not being the introspective type and his distaste for Making Of documentaries (although, he likes Burden of Dreams because it isn’t all about his movie). Herzog almost cast Jack Nicholson but the actor and the studio wanted to shoot the movie on a set. The veteran tries to dispel the reputation he has of being attracted to danger (he once shot a movie on a live volcano).
Also included are two deleted scenes that show Klaus Kinski’s mercurial personality. He freaks out on a crew member, chastising him in front of the entire production while Herzog stands by until he finally defuses the situation. We also see a playful Kinski goofing with a butterfly.
There is a trailer and an extensive stills gallery taken by Gosling while they were deep in the Amazon. There are pictures of cast and crew, locations, local natives and many other aspects of the production.