Burden of Dreams (1982)

Directed by Les Blank

“If I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that.” – Werner Herzog

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Burden of Dreams documents the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzarraldo (1982), an epic shot in the Peruvian jungle.  Like with Apocalypse Now this was a long, troubled production that made for a pretty good movie.  So much of what happens feels unbelievable, and Burden of Dreams captures the insanity and fatigue behind the movie.  

Over four years of pre-production went into Herzog’s film.  First they struggled to find financing, then they were forced by locals out of a community in the jungle, and this setback led to star Jason Robards getting too sick to return and co-star Mick Jagger (yes that Mick Jagger) having to drop out due to an upcoming concert tour.  This led to more financing struggles, but eventually Herzog got production up and running with a new leading actor, his friend Klaus Kinski.

Fitzcarraldo follows an Irishman named Brian Fitzgerald as he attempts to drag a three story ship up a mountain side that connects two rivers.  There’s a reason behind that, but all you need to know is that he wanted to drag a building, essentially, up a mountain.  What made the film so challenging is that Herzog wanted to do the same thing, with no practical effects, for realism’s sake.  Burden of Dreams spends most of its time on the struggle to get the ship up the mountainside and the resulting delays in production as well as the idleness of the film and construction crew as they waited.

Herzog is a bit of a mad man.  If you’re like me, you know him most from his more recent documentaries like Grizzly Man and Into the Abyss.  Those documentaries are shaped by Herzog’s own nihilistic perspective.  Grizzly Man is about Timothy Treadwell, a man who chooses to live along a bear population and is eventually killed by the animals he loves.  Herzog carefully preserves the man’s point of view, but near the end of the film he narrates his own ideas, that there is no sympathy in the bear’s eyes.  Herzog wants you to know, through somewhat poetic language, that the world doesn’t care about us, even if that documentary was about a man who believed quite the opposite.

In Burden of Dreams Herzog is a much younger man, full of a strange kind of vibrance and passion as he jumps around the jungle, slating for the camera and losing his mind when things stop working.  Throughout the documentary we hear from him in various talking heads.  No matter the circumstances he speaks to the camera in a measured voice, recapping the troubled shooting and expressing concern for the future of the project.  By the end he seems to have developed that perspective that defines his later films.  He explains that the jungle is an uncaring place, but he insists that he loves it nonetheless.  

No one would carry on with a project like Fitzcarraldo were it not for an undying passion.  Herzog has this, and he speaks of the importance of dreams symbolically.  He and his crew, he reasons, have to get this ship up the hill if only to prove to themselves that it’s possible.  There is a metaphor within their effort, even if Herzog’s not the one doing the backbreaking labor to move the ship.  

If Herzog’s Grizzly Man taught me anything, it’s that I shouldn’t trust someone just because they’re on camera.  Treadwell, though a little untethered from reality, so earnestly expresses a particular viewpoint only for Herzog, from behind the camera, to poke holes in it.  In Burden of Dreams we watch and listen to Herzog speak to us about the importance of this film, and yet we watch as those around him suffer for it.

The locals work their asses off and spend far too many months away from their family.  At one point someone visits to inspect the campsites and make sure Herzog’s local crew is living in appropriate conditions.  The man seems quietly appalled.  The only soccer ball deflated long ago, the workers have no way to reach out to family and they lie around, wasting away.

Herzog speaks passionately about the importance of preserving cultures like that of his workers, and yet his obsession with this film feels like a stake driven through their community.  He both admires and threatens them, whether or not he realizes it.

Now maybe I’m making too big a deal out of this.  Herzog demonstrates care and interest in the tribal community, but it still feels self-serving.  He documents it in a way that feels as though his interest is akin to the people who would seek to capture King Kong and bring him back to the mainland.  Herzog’s fascination with such a community concerns only what he can capture of it and take home with him.

Werner Herzog is a fascinating guy.  He speaks of this film as a way of preserving this moment in time for the locals, but Burden of Dreams does the same to him and his perspective.  It’s a magnifying glass into one man’s psyche at a particular point in his life.  The anthropological significance of Burden of Dreams might be accidentally self-referential, about a man’s interest as much as the thing he seems to be interested in.

Like most documentaries, this is an attempt to capture something real and honest.  The theme of Burden of Dreams certainly parallels Fitzcarraldo, and I’m sure that wasn’t lost on Herzog, even if what he says sometimes seems to miss the bigger picture.

It might also just be that Herzog performs for the camera much as Klaus Kinski in the film he’s making.  Herzog understands film and its importance, so his willingness to sit down in front of the camera makes it feel like this documentary was his as much as the man who nominally directed it.

Whether or not you believe what Herzog says, you might admire his sincerity or wince at his stubbornness, but the film is certainly thought-provoking, mostly because of the unreliability of this narrator.

Up Next: The Incredibles (2004), The Kid with a Bike (2011), Zabriskie Point (1970)

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