Les Blank’s 1982 documentary, Burden Of Dreams, is a film that, like Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, follows the near-obsessive drive of a great filmmaker to bring a great film to fruition. In the latter film, Eleanor Coppola detailed her husband Francis Ford Coppola’s will to bring Apocalypse Now to the screen. The former film details the similar drive that compelled German filmmaker Werner Herzog to make Fitzcarraldo. While the two fictive films are both great, the Coppola film is likely the greater film than Herzog’s, but, as far as the documentaries are concerned, Burden Of Dreams far outstrips Hearts Of Darkness. The latter film is a good film, but there’s nothing that lifts the film above the Making Of sort of documentary that’s since become de rigueur with DVD releases. In short, the film is pointless if you’ve not watched Apocalypse Now. Not so with Burden Of Dreams. While not a perfect film, it acts as not just a Making Of film, but a film that details a good portion of the sociological and anthropological nature of the natives that Herzog and his crew lived and worked amongst. And, the reason for this may lay in the fact that Blank got a grant from PBS, and the film was originally shown on American television in a truncated 60 minute version, rather than the extended 95 minute long release from The Criterion Collection.
This fact is gleaned from the audio commentary that comes with the film, provided by Blank, his sound recorder, Maureen Gosling, and the ever engaging raconteur himself, Herzog. What is interesting is the fact that there seems to be a meta-meta-meta-narrative in this whole pursuit, that even Herzog mentions, in commenting on a film that’s a comment on his film, which comments on the historical plight of the region that is commented upon by Blank’s documentary. Aside from the commentary, which is quite serviceable, there are other features of note, including the original trailer for the film, two deleted scenes which were later used in Herzog’s own documentary on his relationship with actor Klaus Kinski (who portrayed the character Brian Fitzcarraldo, and starred in four other Herzog films), My Best Fiend, featuring Kinski raging and doing small things with butterflies. There is also a photo gallery of images from the films, and a booklet featuring diary excerpts by Gosling and Blank, as well as a pullout with an essay on the film by film scholar Paul Arthur. But, the two best extras, aside from the commentary, come in the form of a twenty minute short film from Blank, from 1980, called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, in which Herzog fulfills a bet he lost with documentarian Errol Morris, who got the funding he needed to complete his own first film, Gates Of Heaven. The second feature of note is a 38 minute long featurette called Dreams And Burdens, in which Herzog is interviewed about the documentary. The film is shown in a 1.33 :1 aspect ratio.
The documentary was shot in two separate stints with Herzog during his nearly five year long quest to make the film, his having to deal with the local politics of the Indian tribes, Peruvian government, a brewing border war between Ecuador and Peru, bad weather, the ever insane Kinski, attacks on some of the Native extras by hostile tribes, and the need to scrap an earlier version of the film that starred Jason Robards as Fitzcarraldo, and Mick Jagger in a supporting role, due to Robards’ coming up ill, and Jagger having commitments to record an album, and then tour. One then sees how Herzog had to deal with the more mundane, and sometimes insane, obstacles he set for himself. The film follows Fitzcarraldo’s quest to pull a boat over a hill between two rivers, and Herzog decided to do this in reality, and in one piece, rather than broken up, as the real Fitzcarraldo did. For this reason, Herzog actually refurbished an old steamboat from the era, and then built two copies of it.
Yet, as with all Herzog films and projects, this film works because of Herzog. He is the only person interviewed repeatedly, and his visage’s wear and moodiness as the film goes on (and reputedly shot chronologically), as well as his growing ambivalence which turns to frustration and despair, before finally giving way to acceptance, is a thing to watch. One leaves the film feeling that Herzog firmly understands what it takes to make great art, or at least for HIM to make great art, even if his ramblings, often maddeningly incoherent (on a philosophic level), show he has no firm grasp of how to apply his own criteria to the works of others, for he often spouts all the clichés about emotion and art that are demonstrably wrong. This, however, and ironically, is because Herzog is such a one of a kind artist. He really does not understand what art- on an objective level, is; he only understands his vocation which incidentally is art. But that understanding of himself is so profound and so fundamental that the iteration of himself by way of it, can only be art, and that of the highest quality. This schizoid nature of the man is highlighted in a Herzogian soliloquy of sublime silliness and melodrama wherein he rants on about the jungle being a hotbed of murder, and that the universe is chaotic, yet how he still loves the jungle, but against his better judgment. What is interesting to hear is when, in the audio commentary, Blank describes how initial audiences howled with laughter at the inanity and pomposity of Herzog’s plaint, and how the film maestro slunk ever lower and lower in his chair at the screenings. Even more amazing, however, is how such silly sentiments are ultimately negated by the sublimity of the moments of greatness in Fitzcarraldo, and his other great jungle epic, Aguirre: The Wrath Of God.
Yet, this film really comes alive in the moments it follows the Natives playing soccer, or details how the woman of the tribes must make their own form of alcohol, masato, for the men. Two standout scenes show, first, the confrontation between a wife and an ‘other woman’ who want to literally brawl for the affections of a tribesman. We see a ten or twelve year old girl brandishing a huge knife in the background, and are not quite sure if she is waiting to use it, or just pick her fingernails. A bit later comes another great passage where a catholic priest comes to the filming camp to settle things down. The women of the tribe have gone back to their villages, because the film is shooting well over schedule, so the priest advises Herzog to let in local prostitutes to keep the men calm. The major downside to the film is that Blank and his crew left Herzog’s film before it was done, so while we see the problems Herzog had in filming the pulling of one of his three boats over the hill, we never see how he accomplishes the deed, as we only get to see the final filmic version from Fitzcarraldo. Similarly, while we see how Herzog and crew members were hurt on a second boat while filming its passage through dangerous rapids, we likewise never see how he actually got the footage that appears in Fitzcarraldo.
But, these are minor drawbacks, for Burden Of Dreams is a very good documentary that does a rare thing, it illumines not only its subject matter, but all those things about its subject. That’s a two for one deal Hollywood just doesn’t make these days, and it’s precisely why this documentary and DVD is such good viewing.