Burden of Dreams (1982)

Review #1,205

Director:  Les Blank
Plot:  A documentary on the chaotic production of Werner Herzog's epic Fitzcarraldo (1982), showing how the film managed to get made despite problems that would have floored a less obsessively driven director.

Genre:  Documentary
Awards:  Won 1 BAFTA - Flaherty Documentary Award
Runtime:  95min
Rating:  Not rated.  Likely to be NC16 for some coarse language.
Source:  Les Blank Films

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

Some say Burden of Dreams is much more fascinating than the film it was supposed to document – Fitzcarraldo (1982).  Well... that is not too fair a judgment to bestow on one of Herzog's great works, but the documentary is indeed fascinating.  Directed by the late Les Blank who is a respected documentarian himself, Burden of Dreams sees him trailing Herzog into the deep Amazon basin to shoot the latter's ambitious and impossibly risky project. 

Blank also faces the same risks but his courage and perseverance to follow Herzog is a testament to his grit and dedication to his craft.  Revealing in ways unexpected of a 'behind-the-scenes' documentary, Burden of Dreams tries to make sense of Herzog's methods and thinking, while at the same time providing an insightful look into the tradition and culture of the film's South American tribal cast and crew. 

This straddling between cinema and ethnography is the reason for the documentary's fascination.  On one hand, Herzog needs all the resources to help him realize his vision; on the other, the tribes are in danger of losing their territory to rich companies that want to milk the land – working on the film pays the tribes well and might help them gain a territorial leverage. 

Blank's ethnographic interest is also laid apparent as he captures the natural environment where the tribes live in.  The river and jungle are hostile, but also comforting to the soul.  As Klaus Kinski, Fitzcarraldo's lead actor and Herzog's 'best fiend', puts it: "All we do is wait, but at least there's a beautiful view."  What seemed like insurmountable problems that Herzog had to face did not faze him – you will be hell bent trying to find a filmmaker as confident (or insane) as him.

The most impressive thing about Herzog is that whenever he is interviewed by Blank's team during filming breaks, he shows no visible frustration at how things are (not) progressing.  He spouts words of wisdom about the challenges, how close he is to failure, the wonders and violence of nature, yet there appears to be an inner tenacity in him that continues to drive him to (try to) complete his art against all odds. 

Like Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991), the documentary that captured the hellish shoot that was Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), Burden of Dreams is in similar company as one of the best films about the making of a movie ever.

Verdict:  We get intimate with Mr ‘Madman’ Herzog and the South American tribal cast and crew while he films Fitzcarraldo, in what is a fascinating and revealing documentary that straddles between cinema and ethnography.


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