Written by Mike Goodwin and directed by Les Blank, “Burden of Dreams” is a documentary about the legendarily chaotic production of Werner Herzog’s film “Fitzcarraldo” that was shot on location in the South American jungles of the Amazon. Since its release “Burden of Dreams” has gathered notorious status as a documentary that is more daring and impressive than even “Fitzcarraldo” itself due to the massive setbacks and litany of problems that plagued the four year production. It also chronicles a parallel between Herzog and his film’s subject matter, the similarly stubborn and unrelenting real life rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald. Herzog was inspired by Fitzcarrald’s mettle in aspiring to move a steamboat from one river to the next at a precarious angle in the mud and thick jungles. However the real event wasn’t as plagued as Herzog’s, due in part to Herzog’s insistence of risk and difficulty and partly due to chance and circumstance. For example, Herzog demanded they move the whole ship in one piece when in reality Fitzcarrald had moved the real ship in pieces and it only weighed thirty tons in comparison to the three hundred and twenty ton boat that Herzog wanted to use.
Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald was a lover of the Opera and had wished to fund the construction of an opera-house in the Amazon jungle, which is why he was attempting to traverse dangerous terrain in great pain and effort to reach a basin of rubber trees that had not yet been reaped of their resources. When things didn’t work out for Fitzcarrald he retired into becoming a wealthy rubber baron instead of following through on his dreams to bring the Opera to a new continent. Herzog would not give in so easily. In the beginning of the production Herzog had Jason Robards starring as Fitzcarraldo with Mick Jagger co-starring as his side-kick in the endeavor. In fact, they had shot forty percent of the intended film including both leads before Robards was rushed back to New York with amoebic dysentery and forbidden by his doctors to return to the location. Mick Jagger also had to leave the shoot shortly thereafter as he was scheduled to tour with the Rolling Stones and couldn’t be behind schedule with recording new music. So Herzog erased the sidekick character and sought a new lead, considering Jack Nicholson among others before settling on Klaus Kinski, an actor he had worked with before on previous films. Herzog started back from the beginning as nothing they had shot previously would now work.
Upon arrival in the Amazon the local tribes of natives were incredibly superstitious of the German film crew and things quickly escalated to the point that they had to move the production twelve hundred miles upriver as they had been in the middle of two warring tribes’ territories. Once there they had to traverse new problems and obstacles. The mishaps included plane crashes, disease, and attacks by unfriendly Indians to name a few of the many problems they encountered. Herzog had planned to shoot during the rainy season so the rivers would be deep enough for his three ships that he had collected for the shoot, but by the time they got to shooting any of these scenes time had run out and they were running into the dry season, the longest one on record at the time. Large amounts of time were stalled on the shoot due to the difficulties in getting supplies to their film camps, waiting on natives to go council with other neighboring tribes to assess their grievances of various ongoings, and waiting on parts to be delivered for the large tractor that they acquired to pull the boat up the arduous slope. Sometimes they received the wrong parts and had to then wait even more just to get the correct part.
This doesn’t even cover the grievances from the western actors and crew that had stayed far longer than any of their initial contracts had deemed necessary. Klaus Kinski in particular was notably difficult as time waned on. Kinski provoked many crises in the production, he fought virulently with Herzog and other members of the crew over increasingly trivial matters. Later in his documentary of the actor, “My Best Fiend”, Herzog notes that the native extras were greatly upset by the actor’s antics, even as Kinski claimed to feel close to them. Herzog states that one of the native chiefs offered in all seriousness to kill Kinski for him, but that he declined because he needed the actor to complete filming. Schedules being pushed back months and months at a time only put increased stress on the film crew. One cameraman even took injury when one of the boats crashed into the rocky facade of the river because Herzog had noted that due to heavy unexpected rainfall the rivers would be swollen to the levels they needed for the shoot-but only for several hours leveraging great risk for great reward. When it came time to sort out the logistics of filming the boat being pulled up the muddy slope (at a forty degree angle) to craft the illusion of the natives hauling the vessel without the aid of their frequently unreliable tractor, Herzog stood his ground and debated with the engineer they had hired to help them complete the shoot successfully and safely. Eventually the engineer quit the production as he believed the project to be too risky and that it would put people’s lives in unnecessary risk.
Herzog persisted though, the linchpin of the film was shooting the three story boat being hoisted over an isthmus between two adjoining rivers. “Fitzcarraldo” was the story of a single-minded man obsessed with the notion of introducing opera to the jungles of the Amazon. Les Blank’s premise, that Werner Herzog became as obsessed as his lead character, needs no underlining. I found the documentary to be a fascinating examination of one of cinema’s most enduring personalities in Herzog. His determination and artistic integrity in shooting something so unfathomable is both humbling and astonishing. No special effects were used in any aspect of the production and in “Burden of Dreams” you get to see inside the creative process of one of the most fascinating documentary filmmakers we will likely ever witness. If you find film production to be a subject that you enjoy, I highly recommend seeing this. You probably won’t hear of many scenarios that have as good a story as this one.
Final Score: Three three-story steamboats & dozens of real life native Amazon tribesman turned actors