Films about film-making are usually deeply self-conscious, and sometimes deceiving. But there is one at least that succeeds in surpassing the movie whose making it describes. Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams admittedly had it easier than most. The movie it examined was Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, made on location deep in the rainforests of South America and a monument to Herzog’s almost masochistic desire to do the impossible impossibly well.
Fitzcarraldo is the true story of the attempt by an arguably mad Irishman called Fitzgerald to build an opera house in the Amazon. He had initially planned to build a railroad across the continent, starting off with his profits from an ice factory he had built; this new plan was even more audacious.
Klaus Kinski, the conquistador of Aguirre, Wrath of God, played this excessive character when Jason Robards went down with amoebic dysentery, and the casting could scarcely have been bettered. Kinski’s behaviour would have taxed a saint. On a wider front, almost everything that could go wrong with the production did. The film had to be moved some 1,200 miles when a border war broke out between the local Indians, and even at the new venue the tribesmen felt provoked enough to become alarmingly hostile.
Plane crashes, disease, rain and mud disturbed Herzog’s efforts to achieve his tour de force in the film – getting a team of natives to pull an old steamship up a steep hillside using only block and tackle.
All this was meat and drink to Blank, a well-known ethnographic documentarist. But he doesn’t take the mickey. He just records the scene, including Kinski’s tempers, the Indians’ suspicious and often threatening behaviour and Herzog’s descent into near-hysteria.
Blank’s film includes the only available record of some of the unused scenes with Robards and Mick Jagger, who left for a concert tour after all the delays, doubtless with some relief. It also shows the actual mechanisms by which Herzog hoped to move the old ship halfway up a mountain. A giant bulldozer augments the block-and-pulley but proves unequal to the task as the Brazilian engineer in charge of the operation storms off, complaining that it is virtually certain that lives will be lost.
This is warts-and-all stuff, made with sympathy but determined to show us as much of the truth as possible. Part of that truth is that Herzog seemed to identify with Fitzgerald (called Fitzcarraldo by the natives), and certainly his plan to make a film in such a place was almost as crazy as the Irishman’s opera house daydream.
Fitzcarraldo, though full of notable sequences, doesn’t entirely work; Blank’s film, however, does. You don’t have to have seen Fitzcarraldo to appreciate it. As Time Out said at the time, it takes on a crazy life of its own.