West Germany, 1982
Written and directed by Werner Herzog
Starring Klaus Kinski
Burden of Dreams
Directed by Les Blank
Narration by Michael Goodwin
Fitzcarraldo is available to stream on Hulu (free with ads) and Burden of Dreams is available on HuluPlus
In late 19th century Peru, rubber baron Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald was in need of a new source of rubber. He knew of a place, but it was deep in the jungle and nearly impossible to reach. In order to get there with a full work crew and the necessary equipment, he would need to go by boat. Due to a series of rapids in the surrounding river, that looked like it was never going to happen. But where there’s a will there’s a way. So the answer? Move the boat over the mountain of course. And when I say boat, I don’t mean a canoe or a dingy. I mean a 300-ton+ steamship. Over a muddy, steep, mountain. And Fitzcarrald did it. He disassembled the ship and piece by piece hauled it over the mountain, using the local natives as forced labor. Great story, right? Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog’s drama that defines the word “epic”, tells the story of this little oddity of history. But Herzog simply used the story as inspiration, then upped the ante. This film wasn’t shot on set. It didn’t employ an army of Hollywood extras. They shot it in the middle of one of the most dangerous jungles on the planet, with real locals, and yes they moved a steamship over a mountain. The difference? Herzog didn’t disassemble the ship. He moved the damned thing up and over in one piece.
Burden of Dreams is the documentary that captures this story behind the story. It illustrates the willpower and madness behind the film. It allows us a little peak inside the mind of a real genius. And what we see there is as fascinating as it is frightening. The two films must be viewed as companions. To see one without the other would be a crime, though each is a great film in its own right. Obsession is the underlying theme in both films. The obsession of an artist, the obsession of an explorer, the obsession of a treasure hunter. They’re all the same at the psychological level. Herzog and Blank together make us feel that obsession, they make us feel the need to press on, to do what nobody has done. My admiration for Werner Herzog cannot be hidden. I’m not easily starstruck. I’ve seen celebrities before and I’ve never felt the need to take a photo with them or tell them how much I love their work. But if I saw Werner Herzog on the street, I would probably kiss him on the mouth. I think nobody in the history of film stimulates my mind the way he does–with his words, with his images, with the ideas that creep their way into the back of my mind and never go away. Watch this short clip from Burden of Dreams. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ze9-ARjL-ZA That is a man who is speaking his mind, no inhibition, no reserve. Just his thoughts pouring right out. He was (and is still) a man obsessed. He is a man constantly searching for life on the fringes of society and sanity. The films that result from this compulsion are simply impossible. Watching them, I’m forced to the conclusion that they never should have happened. And yet here they are, as examples of what movies can be but too often are not. We are blessed that Herzog continues to make films. His vision and drive have not stopped for over half a century. Neither have his questions. He asks questions that make sense only to him, and questions that can’t possibly have an answer. But the question is often more valuable than the answer, and the search is often of more worth than the treasure at the end of it.