“You wanted to know the story of Fitzcarraldo,” Werner Herzog intones over roving shots of treetops shrouded in fog, deep in the Peruvian Amazon. “It’s a strange story, a little bit Sisyphus-like story or a story of a challenge of the impossible.” These lines, which open Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982, hereafter Burden), have a double meaning; directly, they refer to the narrative of Herzog’s adventure-drama Fitzcarraldo (1982), in which the eponymous Fitz (Klaus Kinski) endeavours to push a steamship over a mountain in the jungle. Indirectly, they frame the narrative of Blank’s documentary, which traces the production of Herzog’s film – itself a struggle of Sisyphean proportions. The infamously troubled project took almost five years to complete, and was repeatedly thrown into peril by unruly weather, illness, arson, border disputes, and the cultural gap between the European and native Indian factions of the cast and crew.
Burden provides a lyrical and philosophical lens through which to view these unfolding dramas. The film is a departure for Blank, a documentarian primarily drawn to ethnic pockets of the United States. Although he pursues his signature interest in musical and culinary traditions in Burden (which features poignant glimpses into native life), the film is dominated by the mythological figure of Herzog himself. A darkness otherwise alien to Blank’s work creeps into Burden as the “cursed”1 production trundles on, Herzog’s soliloquies becoming evermore metaphysical and portentous. With Fitzcarraldo increasingly behind schedule and over-budget, its ethicacy becomes a concern on par with its viability: the question of Fitzcarraldo’s potential artistic value versus its impact on the natural environment and its native inhabitants underpins Blank’s documentary, and points towards bigger questions about the cultural role of film, and of filmmakers.
Ultimately, both Burden and Fitzcarraldo are investigations into the power and value of dreams: Herzog dreams of completing his film, while it is Fitzcarraldo’s dream of building an opera house in his adopted home, the Peruvian city of Iquitos, that launches him on the treacherous adventure depicted in the film.2 The film’s climax involves Fitzcarraldo enlisting the help of the native population in building a complex system of pulleys and cables capable of transporting his 320-ton steamship over a small mountain. The Molly Aida’s overland migration, Herzog stresses, is the central metaphor of his film; it is also the central image of Burden. Much of the documentary’s dramatic tension stems from Herzog’s insistence that this surreal, potentially impossible feat be accomplished with no trick shots, and no models. The one advantage he will allow his cast and crew over his fictive characters is a temperamental tractor.
The dreams of both Herzog and Fitzcarraldo pivot on the Molly Aida’s ascent. The ship thus becomes a symbol of the struggle to realise dreams, pertaining to the unwieldy and impractical creative process itself. The fanaticism this project inspires in Herzog is manifest in the name he gives to his jungle film camp: Pelicula o Muerte (Film or Death).3 Although this “philosophy of filmmaking” 4 appears tongue-in-cheek, few films have tested the strength of their maker’s convictions in such a rigorous manner. A chilling scene in Burden has engineer La Place Martins warning Herzog that his system for hauling the boat is designed for a slope half the gradient of the current one, and that proceeding will put dozens of lives at risk. Herzog protests that to level the terrain any further is to “lose the central metaphor of my film,” and therefore: “I’m prepared to take a bigger risk than the one you’re advising me to take.” It seems that his philosophy applies not only to his willingness to risk his own life for his art, but also the lives of others.
It often seems that it is risk itself that draws Herzog to certain images. His impulse toward danger and difficulty is evident in the way in which he transforms the historical source material that inspired Fitzcarraldo: there was, at the end of the nineteenth century, a Peruvian rubber baron who transported a ship over an isthmus. In Burden, Blank nudges Herzog into revealing the key differences between the actual event and the dramatised one: namely, that Carlos Fitzcarrald’s boat was less than a tenth of the size of Herzog’s, and furthermore that it was only transported across the mountain after having been disassembled into 15 or so pieces. Herzog seems almost sheepish in this exchange, as if confessing to some of the madness that many accused him of – but his allegiance remains to the poetry he sees in the dream he has concocted, rather than the prosaic reality. This single-minded pursuit of the unprecedented can be written off as a symptom of insanity or unbridled egomania (and it has been5), but it can also be considered a marker of an artist fiercely committed to exploration and experiment. Burden suggests that it is some combination of all three. However, the latter notion deserves more consideration, if not more weighting.
Herzog’s approach to filmmaking is rooted in his desire to access a particular kind of truth – not the facts of an event, but the deeper emotional resonances. There is a line in Fitzcarraldo that intimates his complex attitude toward authenticity: a missionary Fitz meets laments, “We can’t seem to cure the Indians of the idea that our everyday life is only an illusion, behind which lies the reality of dreams.” Clearly a devotee of this notion himself, Herzog considers it his absolute duty to attempt to provide access to this nebulous realm via film. Like Fitzcarraldo – and Sisyphus6 – Herzog in Burden is the flawed, eccentric hero, hell-bent on pursuing an impossible goal. Unlike Sisyphus, however, Herzog successfully pushed his burden (the Molly Aida) to the top of the hill – and managed to capture it on film. In Burden of Dreams, Blank provides critical insight into the price of that bitter victory, crafting a portrait of the artist at the epicentre of the chaos that both disturbs and inspires.
Burden of Dreams (1982 United States 82 min)
Prod Co: Flower Films Prod, Dir, Phot: Les Blank Ed: Maureen Gosling
Cast: Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Mick Jagger
- Werner Herzog, Burden of Dreams (Les Blank, 1982). ↩
- To recap: it is the end of the nineteenth century, and Fitzcarraldo hopes to finance his operatic vision by staking a claim in the rubber boom sweeping the Amazon basin. The only unclaimed land, however, is located downriver of perilous rapids. One far-fetched dream begets another: the determined Fitz plans to access the lucrative rubber trees by sailing down the parallel tributary and dragging his boat overland at a point where, by a quirk of geography, a mile-wide isthmus is all that separates the two rivers. ↩
- ‘Pelicula o Muerte’ also functioned as Herzog’s name for his film camp during the shooting of Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972). The film is often compared (sometimes unfavourably) to Fitzcarraldo, as both were shot deep in the Peruvian jungle and star the wild-eyed Kinski. ↩
- Werner Herzog, quoted in Maureen Gosling, “Recuerdos Peruanos,” in Burden of Dreams, Les Blank and James Bogan, eds. (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 1984), p. 164. ↩
- See, for instance, Colin Westerbeck Jr.’s review of Burden (“Herzog of the Jungle”) or Pat Aufderheide’s (“Shadowed by Fierce Dreams”). Both in ibid., 241-44, and 245-49. ↩
- Or indeed Don Quixote, a figure who has special resonance given that he too was the subject of a particularly cursed film production: Terry Gilliam’s aborted attempt to adapt Cervantes for the screen was documented in Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2002). ↩