“Burden of Dreams” — The Joys and Pains of a Film-Maker


Today every Hollywood film’s DVD includes featurettes or ‘behind the scenes’ aspects to explain us how the projects were aesthetically realized. Even TV channels, before the release of a movie telecast such short ‘making of’ clips. However, the vast of majority of ‘behind the scenes’ videos are constructed purely for commercial purposes, with the elemental goal being to sell a product. Most of the film-making documentaries or featurettes miss out the dreams and fantasies of a film-maker that made him to choose a particular kind of aesthetics. It misses out the obsession of a director that doesn’t shrink even in the face of insurmountable obstacles.

Every great film-maker from Kubrick to Scorsese must have faced obstructions at one or other time. But, two film-makers come to my mind, whenever the topic of ‘behind the scenes’ documentaries comes up. Two passionate and obsessed film-makers, who remained tenacious, till the end to realize their dream. One is Francis Ford Coppola, whose magnum opus ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) perpetually ran into cataclysmic troubles, while the other guy is Werner Herzog, whose deadly project ‘Fitzcarraldo’ faced all kinds of problems from budget constraints to death threats. “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse”, ascintillating documentary released in 1991 explored the hardships endured in Coppola movie. Renowned documentary film-maker Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams” (1982) not only explains the sensationalism behind the making of “Fitzcarraldo”, but also sociologically explores the ancient world of natives, who gets confronted by the modern art of film-making.


Along with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Herzog was one of the pioneers of New German Cinema movement (in the 1970s). He gained the name as ‘cinematic madman’ who often sought primeval landscapes and put himself under all sorts of risks. His dream project “Fitzcarraldo” is set in the late Victorian era and was planned to be filmed on the Amazon jungle. The story follows a Irish Businessman, who travels to Amazon with a mad obsession to build a lavish opera house in the middle of the jungle, where his favorite Italian tenor Caruso will be asked to perform. To accomplish this mad goal, Fitzcarraldo has to literally drag a 130-ton steamship over a muddy mountain and through the jungle. Herzog heard a real historical story about a rubber baron, who in the Amazon jungle moved a ship from one hill to another (although the real guy dismantled the steamer and carried in sections over the mountain to the other stream). Herzog cooked up the character of eccentric dreamer around this real event.

In November 1979, Herzog reached Paraquitos in Peru to scout locations for the movie. Due to a border war between Ecuador and Peru, Herzog’s camps were burned and the film crew faced death threats. After another year of location scouting, the crew moved to Iquitos in northern part of Peru and finished 40% of the film there. But, unfortunately the film’s lead actor Jason Robards gets amoebic dysentery and his doctors stop him from returning to the jungles. Herzog returns to German to convince his investors, while the other actor Mick Jagger quits the movie to join for a concert tour. So, all the footage must now go to garbage and the film should be started afresh. After appeasing the investors, Herzog brings in intemperate, but brilliant actor Klaus Kinski for the lead role. Shooting resumes, but Herzog and his crew runs into trouble as various factions of Amazon tribes often clash with themselves.


Among all these hurdles, Herzog’s finds the dragging of steam-ship over the muddy hill as the most challenging. Without employing any kind of special effects or miniatures, Herzog intended to use native labor to move an actual ship up and over 40 feet Steep Mountain. A Brazilian engineer designs the mechanisms to drag the ship, but he walks off the production in the middle, realizing that the entire thing is too dangerous. He is convinced that even a small mistake may lead to loss of lives (of the 60 native men he says 20 0r 30 might be killed). Meanwhile, amidst this entire treacherous situation, Herzog plans to film a river crash in Amazon River’s one of dangerous rapids.


Les Blank’s documentary makes one thing clear: although Herzog is obsessed to pull in his dream, he is not some uncontrolled amateur, who is hell-bent on sacrificing lives to service his craft. What we see is a man leaping through obstacles in a refined manner to keep his aspiration alive. Les Blank doesn’t give a sympathetic or damning portrait of Herzog, and we are able to understand his dreams and enthusiasm. Herzog’s devolving spirit is also perfectly depicted. At one point, Herzog states that everything about nature is obscene and every creature living in it is in a constant state of misery.

Les Blank’s camera doesn’t only concentrate on the hurdles faced by production. He also includes small details about the tribes, focuses on the insect life, and even interviews prostitutes, who are hired for weary men in production camp (as suggested by the village’s Catholic Priest). All these wondrous aesthetic details give a lived-in feel. ‘Is a movie or an artist’s dream worth all these burdens?’ The answer to that question is left to us. May be even Herzog can’t easily come up with an answer.

Les Blank

Les Blank

In the middle of the documentary, Herzog (over various shots of native people) says, “In this case (Fitzcarraldo), we will probably have one of the last feature films with authentic natives in it. They are fading very quickly. And we are losing riches and we lose cultures, individualities, languages, mythologies and we’ll be stark naked at the end. We’ll end up like all the cities in the world now with skyscrapers and a universal kind of culture, like the American culture.” Even after three decades, Herzog’s words rings true as the ‘Amazon’ is relentlessly plundered by corporate giants. May be only dreams and its persistent burdens can safeguard individualities and cultures.


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