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Burden of Dreams
Burden of Dreams is about an inspired (read: crazy) German filmmaker leading an obsessive (read: crazy) German actor and a crew of fanatic filmmakers into the jungle to make a movie ... about an inspired, obsessed Irishmen leading a crazy group of men into the jungle on a quest for riches. Director Werner Herzog is obsessed with obsession itself, as his stories about manic characters taking wild trips into the wilderness (as with Aguirre the Wrath of God) appear to be a pretext to undertake mad filmmaking adventures of his own. Burden of Dreams documents his filming of Fitzcarraldo in the headwaters of the Amazon, where nobody but Sam Fuller ever dared to make a movie. In the end the studio wouldn't let Sam him do it anyway.
Les Blank's altogether amazing film has been praised by many as a better movie than Fitzcarraldo itself; Criterion's fat special edition disc comes with more filmic and text evidence that Werner Herzog must have been a fanatic Conquistador in some past life.
Burden of Dreams puts us on edge from its first shot, when we see a small plane land on a hazardous muddy field that tells us, "You know, it might not be safe out there." Driven to shoot his movie far away from civilization where conditions will give his actors a feeling of authenticity, Herzog must start his film project twice. Indian activists threaten his crew and burn down his work camp, so the company moves even deeper into the forest in search of a place where there is dangerous-looking rapid water, and two rivers separated by a narrow strip of land. The whole point of Fitzcarraldo is to actually haul a giant steamboat across an isthmus of land, a real-life engineering feat to give the picture undeniable authenticity - and danger.
Les Blank's docu covers the filming from every angle except the experience of the actors. Viewers looking for behind-the-scenes gab about personalities are going to be disappointed to see only a couple of shots of Mick Jagger and Jason Robards, the original actors that Herzog lost when he had to start his film afresh. Instead we get an in-depth chronicle of the perils and difficulties, ironies and absurdities of filming "800 miles from a place where one can buy a flashlight battery."
We see danger all around, with talk of murderous insects and small cuts that attract life-threatening infections being only the tip of the iceberg. Indians hired to work on the picture are attacked by enemy tribes; we see Herzog's doctor sewing up some serious-looking wounds. Herzog watches his best "actors" leaving in canoes the next day to take revenge, with rifles they have bought with their earnings. The narrators wonder if the camp will be overrun by a warring tribe.
Herzog has daunting responsibilities to manage. His Indian extras can't swim but have to be put in dangerous places on the river. The elaborate winch system to haul the boat up the incline might break down, sending cables flying. A Brazilian engineer quits, predicting that twenty or thirty people could be killed in a single accident. Herzog has to balance the work-related injuries against the fact that his camp doctor has been saving many lives among the local Indians who come for help.
The film returns for occasional on-camera interviews with the director, who comes of as increasingly anxious about what he is doing. At one point he says he should never be allowed to make a movie again, that when he finishes he should check himself into an asylum. Later on, he gives forth with a warped discourse on the jungle, saying it not a garden of delights but an obscene death trap full of aggressive life forms and rotting flesh. Blank's camera illustrates this with various freaky flora and fauna. We see a dead parrot (no joke) followed by the image of an ant carrying one of its red feathers like a battle flag. The theme of both Fitzcarraldo and Burden of Dreams is the great theme of Latin American literature, La Selva. The forest is a place of great beauty where the adventurous go to find their fortune. But most of them are swallowed up, never to be seen again.
Burden of Dreams shies away from depicting outright crazy behavior by the notorious mad-dog actor Klaus Kinski, but we get a good taste of his fervor in coverage of him acting with the Indians, and especially acting on board the rudderless boat as Herzog allows it to drift into the rapids and bounce violently against the rocks. The cameramen hang on for their lives as Kinski runs about like a madman; we can see the canyon walls looming forward on a collision course. It's thrilling in Fitzcarraldo and equally amazing to see in Burden of Dreams, with Herzog and his cameraman scrambling to get their shots.
Criterion's disk of Burden of Dreams presents the eye-opening film in an excellent full-frame transfer with great color and sound. It's accompanied by a great selection of extras that show Werner Herzog to be a uniquely creative crazy man. The legendary film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is here; it's a 20 minute docu about the director doing exactly that to pay off an a bet he had with Errol Morris. It's at least partially a plug for Morris' film Gates of Heaven and shows the director to be a master of the double-dare. Herzog speaks out today in a long selection of new interviews, and joins both the director and editor of Burden of Dreams, Les Blank and Maureen Gosling on a fascinating commentary track. Two deleted scenes later used in Herzog's film about Klaus Kinski, My Best Fiend, show the actor going berserk on the set. There are also set and location photos from Gosling, and a small book containing the journal entries of the filmmakers from their time in the oriente of Peru.
Burden of Dreams has a sterling reputation among film fans, and Criterion's disc will be a much-desired acquisition for many of them.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Burden of Dreams rates:
Sound: Excellent English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
Supplements: Commentary by director Les Blank, editor and sound recordist Maureen Gosling, and Werner Herzog; Les Blank docu Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe; New video interview with Herzog; Deleted Scenes; Gallery of set and location photos by Maureen Gosling; A book featuring excerpts from Les Blank & Maureen Gosling's journal entries on the set of Fitzcarraldo; Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 8, 2005