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BURDEN OF DREAMS(director: Les Blank; screenwriter: Michael Goodwin; cinematographer: Les Blank; editor: Maureen Gosling; cast: Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards Jr., Mick Jagger, Michael Goodwin (narrator); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Les Blank; Criterion Collection; 1982)
“Remarkably candid behind-the-scenes documentary.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Documentarian Les Blank (” Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe”) follows eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog into the Amazon rainforest of Peru, some thousand miles or so from civilization, and is on hand during the filming of Herzog’s epic Fitzcarraldo to capture on film the difficulties of shooting the film in such arduous conditions in the jungle. Fitzcarraldo is a star-crossed film that because of the elements met with many disasters both physically and financially, and luckily for us Blank in this remarkably candid behind-the-scenes documentary gets a chance at showing the reactions of the cast and provides a great character study of the hard-pressed Herzog to keep the project going despite major setbacks. The documentary also tells a marvelous ethnographic story about the primitive native Indians hired to work (as extras and as crew) in the film and offers a wonderful travelogue of the Peruvian Amazon.

Herzog said: “Without dreams we would be cows in a field, and I don’t want to live like that.” He tells us that his story is about “the challenge of the impossible” and believing in one’s dreams, but by the end, admits that he should “go to a lunatic asylum.”

In November 1979, Werner Herzog arrives in Paraquitos in Peru to scout out locations and begin shooting Fitzcarraldo. It’s an historical story Herzog had heard of where a rubber baron in the Amazon jungle had transported an entire ship from one river over a hill to another. This induced Herzog to tell a more interesting new story about a character he identifies with, an eccentric dreamer opera-loving Irishman called Fitzgerald who the natives called Fitzcarraldo (they couldn’t say Fitzgerald) and his dream, at the turn-of-the-century, of bringing the opera music he loved to the Amazon. His plan was to build an opera house in the jungle and invite Caruso there to perform. In order to do this project, he would have to pull an enormous riverboat over mountains and through the jungle (in actuality, Fitzcarraldo had dismantled the boat and reassembled it on the other side).

Herzog’s border camp in Peru is burned, as a border war between Peru and Equador escalates during filming. The crew moves to Iquitos, but Jason Robards, the film’s Fitzcarraldo, gets dysentery and quits. Therefore Herzog returns to Germany to convince his backers not to pull the rug out of him, but also learns that the costar Mick Jagger can’t stay on and leaves the project due to prior commitments to tour and cut an album. The 40 percent of the film that was shot is scrapped and new shooting begins in 1981 with new stars Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale.

Herzog moves to an even more remote jungle location, but the rainy season is over and the rusty battered large riverboat used in the film can’t navigate the shallow water. A second-hand bulldozer used to clear a path on the mountain for the boat keeps breaking and parts take a long time to be delivered from Miami. Also the engineer in charge of hauling it quits because of safety concerns, thinking the project is too dangerous and if a cable snaps on the faulty pulley system many Indians hauling the boat up the mountain will lose their lives. Herzog is more interested in finishing the film than he is with these safety concerns, as he is obsessed with making his dream move the mountain.

Shooting proceeds at a very slow pace because of all the delays and the morale of the cast and crew is at a low point, especially after an Indian and his wife are injured by arrows in an attack by a rival Indian tribe over water rights. Furthermore a production plane crashes killing one and paralyzing the survivor. During a dangerous rapids sequence, the boat crashes into some rocks and the cameraman is badly injured. Finally, in November 1981, the film is completed as the boat is finally hauled over the mountain.

Blanc leaves it up to the viewer to decide for themselves whether it was worth the effort to go through so much craziness, misery and folly to make Fitzcarraldo. Though the fact that the exasperating but darkly comical film got made at all might make it seem alright, I don’t think says it all. There’s something frightening and desperate about Herzog, as he looks as if he’s a possessed man who is caught between serving art and his megalomania.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”