For enigmatic German filmmaker Werner Herzog, his 1982 film Fitzcarraldo wasn't so much a film project, as it was a personal obsession (ironic, considering that the film itself is actually about obsession when you really get down to the core of it all). Herzog made it his personal mission in life at that period in time to recreate, with as much legitimate accuracy as humanly possible, the story of one man's unusual quest to build a full sized European style opera house smack dab in the middle of the Amazon jungles of South America.
Herzog didn't want to use special effects to make this happen, he wanted to recreate Fitzcarraldo's efforts down to the smallest detail by hauling a life sized steamship up and over a mud covered mountain using only the strength of a group of natives and some primitive ropes and pulleys. While it sounds crazy on the surface (and I'm still not entirely convinced that it wasn't complete lunacy on Herzog's part), it makes for a truly fascinating documentary subject, which is exactly where Les Blank's Burden Of Dreams comes into play.
Les Blank basically tagged along with Herzog when he finally got the project underway and was there to document that making of the film from the very beginning. While a false start or two prevented the film from happening as quickly as the director had hoped, his determination eventually triumphed and after casting Jason Robards and then later Mick Jagger in the lead role, Herzog finally settled on Klaus Kinski. Herzog had had worked with Kinski before on such notable films as Woyczek, Nosferatu, and Aguirre – The Wrath Of God. Anyone who knows anything about Herzog knows that he and Kinski had a rather tumultuous relationship at the best of times (was there anyone with whom Kinski didn't have a strange relationship with?) but he fit the role perfectly and there was no denying the fact that the pair had had made some great films together in the past.
As filming proceeded deep in the heart of the jungle, things quickly deteriorated into a big ugly mess. Kinski was difficult as was to be expected but he would prove to be the least of the director's problems as his crew started getting ill, people were running out of food, they were living in their own filth, and things just generally started to turn very, very sour for the cast and crew involved.
Blank documents this rather rapid downward spiral and sets it beside some completely amazing footage of the team of natives hard at work on lugging the boat up the mountain. In addition to the struggles that the cast and crew have to deal with, the natives have their own problems that also serve to get in the way of hindering progress on the shoot. Domestic problems and health and safety issues relating to the very act of hauling a giant boat up a mountain do come into play and the natives are as much characters in this story as Herzog or Kinski are and in fact, watching the natives in their spare time, making booze and playing games to pass the time, is as interesting as anything else in the film.
Also scattered throughout the film are interviews with a few of the other cast and crew members involved in making the film, and plenty of clips from the finished version of Fitzcarraldo that make for an interesting comparison when watched back to back with the raw footage captured on camera for this documentary. Also worth noting is that some of the test footage with Mick Jagger and with Jason Robards can be seen here as well – and again, it makes for an interesting comparison when contrasted with Klaus Kinski's performance.
Aside from the interaction between Herzog and his cast and crew, the film also provides plenty of beautiful footage of the Amazon and the surrounding area in which they shot the bulk of the movie. The jungle proves to be incredibly inhospitable during their stay but that doesn't mean that it isn't pretty to look at and Burden Of Dreams provides ample opportunity for us to do just that.
Part of the reason that this documentary turns out to be so interesting is that, aside from the utterly bizarre scenario taking place in front of the camera, Herzog himself is a fascinating man. He has an obvious passion for filmmaking and the ego to go along with it. Of course, as the film progresses, it's interesting to see it have an effect on him – sometimes it humbles him, other times it pumps up his bravura just a little bit more – either way, as a character study this type of fly on the wall footage is fascinating. Les Blank's camera captures the man honestly and he doesn't edit out the ugly parts that might paint his subject in a less than flattering light. Warts and all, Blanc's character study shows the man during some obvious high points and some even more obvious lows. Herzog rambles on about various ways of justifying what he's doing and makes some interesting philosophical comparisons to life and death in regards to how the jungle envelops everything around him, but even in these scenes, his stress level is obvious.
The film also does a spectacular job of pointing out the parallels between Herzog and Fitzcarraldo himself. By imitating Fitzcarraldo's story so intricately and in such a detailed and realistic fashion, he is in a sense becoming the subject of his own film. The egotism and struggles for control over the workers that each of the two men had to deal with while setting out to accomplish their lofty goals is also well detailed. Both men had their issues to deal with and both men, to different extents at least, left the ordeal with some sense of accomplishment.
For a documentary that was shot under some pretty intense conditions without the aid of professional lighting or cinematography, Burden Of Dreams looks pretty damn good. Criterion has done a complete clean up and restoration of the film from the original negative and with a few exceptions inherent in the original source material used for the transfer, the image is extremely well rendered. There's a little bit of print damage here and there that you'll notice cropping up in the form of some specks on the image and there are some darker scenes that have some heavier film grain on them but if you take those out of the equation you're left with a very nice picture indeed. There are also some instances where the colors don't look as bright as you might think that they would but this is a pretty minor issue. If you're looking to nitpick, yes, you'll find flaws in the image but if you sit back take in the whole picture, you're left with a very satisfactory effort.
Burden Of Dreams is presented in its original Dolby Digital Mono sound mix, the majority of which is in English with bits and pieces here and there in German, Spanish and Peruvian. The sound mix is quite basic for the film and Criterion has cleaned it up quite a bit. There aren't any problems with hiss or distortion and the dialogue and voice over narration used throughout the film comes through cleanly, clearly, and without any notable problems. Optional English subtitles are provided for the entire film and a second subtitle option is available that translates all of the non-English dialogue into English.
The first thing you're likely to notice once you tear the cellophane off of the packaging is that Criterion has supplied a seventy-seven page booklet inside the cardboard slipcase that features a wealth of excerpts from Maureen Gosling's journal and from Les Blank's journal. Gosling was the sound tech who worked on the documentary and she was there first hand while everything that happens in the film was going down. These brief missives provide further insight into Herzog's technique and provide a different slant on the events that the camera captured. These journal entries also serve to flesh out the experience a bit more as they cover some different aspects of the experience than those covered in the final cut of the film.
Maureen Gosling and Les Blank are joined on a commentary track by Werner Herzog himself, and it proves to be an interesting look back on their time in the jungle. Though Gosling and Blank were recorded earlier than Herzog was (it was split over two sessions), Criterion has done a good job editing the comments together so that the track flows very nicely and contains next to no dead air. Those who were fascinated by the commentary tracks that Herzog provided on the Anchor Bay DVD release might be a little disappointed to find him a little more subdued here than usual. He doesn't have as much to say about this film as he has about some of his other films. Thankfully, Gosling and Blank do an admirable job of filling in the blanks on the history of the movie and on their experiences therein and prove to be quite interesting people in their own right.
Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is a twenty minute short film also directed by Les Blank that further solidifies his eccentricities. The basic premise is that Herzog promised filmmaker Errol Morris that if her were able to actually complete his film, Heaven's Gate (a very good documentary on pet cemeteries), that he would eat a shoe. Morris got the film made, and Herzog made good on his bet. Les Blank was there at the premiere of Heaven's Gate to capture Herzog chowing down on the shoe and it also shows how Herzog prepared for the shoe eating and how he prepared the shoe itself to actually be eaten. It's an odd little movie, but a pretty amusing one that somehow feels very appropriate alongside Burden Of Dreams.
Up next is a thirty eight minute on camera video interview with Werner Herzog entitled Dreams And Burdens in which the director discusses in quite a bit of detail his involvement in Fitzcarraldo. This mini-documentary is chopped into four sections entitled: Casting, Dreams, Danger and Parallels and each title more or less covers its subject. Herzog has a lot more to say in this interview than he did in the commentary track and is quite animated and interesting to watch as he recollects his thoughts on just how much of himself went into getting the film finished as well as where some of his inspiration came from and how the whole experience went on to shape his career and his output. His stories about the infamous casting problems that the film had in pre-production are also quite interesting, and the running time on this one flies by pretty quickly.
Those who have seen My Best Fiend might recognize the two deleted scenes that have found their way into the extra features on this release. Flight and Butterflies are two very opposite scenes that both showcase Kinski's qualities in a rather interesting light – one in a significantly more hostile way than the other. Combined, these two scenes add up to just under six minutes in length.
Rounding out the extra features are a theatrical trailer for Burden Of Dreams, a large still gallery of photographs taken by Gosling during the expedition, and a four page insert/liner note booklet.
Criterion has provided a fantastic selection of extra features to compliment on of the best 'making of' documentaries ever made. The picture and sound on the DVD is excellent considering the source material the subject matter is truly interesting. Herzog makes for a remarkable documentary subject, and Burden Of Dreams does an excellent job of showing why that is. Highly Recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.