When I first watched Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t up to par with Herzog’s classic films (Aguirre, the Wrath of God,The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, Encounters at the End of the World and Grizzly Man, to name a few). After watching Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams, however, which looks at the making of Fitzcarraldo, and the trials, tribulations and absolute chaos that went into it, I really want to see Fitzcarraldo a second time and hopefully appreciate the film as much as I should. With regards to the cast of Fitzcarraldo, what I find interesting is that the original part of the character Fitzcarraldo was given to Jason Robards, and his assistant was supposed to be played by none other than Mick Jagger. Unfortunately, Robards came down with a terrible case of dysentery when they had only filmed about forty percent of the script and he wasn’t allowed to return to the Amazon to finish the shoot. Jagger abandoned the script shortly thereafter to work on the album Tattoo You (as much as I love the Stones, I’ll admit that that record’s a dud), and one of Herzog’s greatest regrets as a filmmaker is that he lost Jagger (and also Jagger’s part because Mick was the only one who could play his part). With Robards and Jagger gone, Herzog resorts to casting the talented yet volatile Klaus Kinski in the lead role.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, Fitzcarraldo is about this European businessman Fitzcarraldo who arrives in the jungles of South America and ultimately achieves the feat of pulling a steamship over a steep hill (it’s no easy feat, I’ll tell you that much). Herzog is faced by many setbacks, from territorial disputes to extensive dry seasons to discord with the Natives to frustrated actors (especially Kinski, who hates “the fucking jungle” and “the fucking smell”; Herzog eventually brings in prostitutes from the local villages to accommodate the men on the set) to the very jungle that serves as an obstacle to his film. Herzog becomes obsessed with the project, shooting on one of the steamships while it crashes across rocks and continuing the pull up the hill. I’ve always considered Herzog to be my favourite actor, as insane and brilliant as he is. We need more directors with the passion and dedication of Herzog out there.
Blank focuses upon the pulling of the steamship, with its network of pulleys and turning wheels, as the central metaphor of the film. Herzog has a dream and an ideal vision of what he wants the film to be and how it should be done, but the gods seem to be against him. Herzog admits at one point in the film that he won’t stop unless it kills him. The comparison between the problematic pulling of the steamship and the obstacles that dreams face provide a realistic account of the potentially harrowing circumstances dreamers face, and how most people’s dreams are shattered and remain unfulfilled when they realize the often sublime odds and chaos before them. The tragedy and problems surrounding the production eat away at Herzog’s sanity and patience as the documentary progresses. In my favourite scene of the film, which really reminds me of Marlow’s descent into Kurtz’s savage wilderness in Heart of Darkness, Herzog is standing in the rainforest and contrasts Kinski’s notion of the “erotic” jungle with a dark, disturbing, “fornicating,” jungle, which Blank then contrasts with beautiful images of the wildlife. I personally felt more akin to Herzog’s image of the wilderness after seeing all of the hell that they endured during the production. I believe that the beauty of the wilderness in the film is a facade for the lingering darkness and the chaos brewing within. There are so many memorable moments in the film that I have trouble concentrating on just one.
Despite his apparent insanity, I’m drawn and inspired by Herzog’s passionate filmmaking and meticulous eye for detail. Furthermore, I am attracted to Blank’s tenacity to the project. I’m pleased to report that the steamship made it over the hill and that the film Fitzcarraldo, in spite of its hardships, emerged successfully from the Amazonian jungle in 1982. I am also pleased to report that Herzog is still producing great films. Bad Lieutenant: Port Call to New Orleans was a brilliant piece of filmmaking, and his more recent films such as Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (he wrote the script for that one) look both spectacular, ingenious and captivating, as most Herzog films are. Essentially, Burden of Dreams is the journey into the heart of an immense darkness, but whereas Heart of Darkness ends on a sombre note, Burden of Dreams ends triumphantly. The chemistry between the cast and the indigenous people is interesting and enlightening. Blank places special emphasis on the indigenous practices of the Amazonian people, lending insight into how the psychology and drama of the production unfolds. Burden of Dreams is ultimately both a philosophical and introspective odyssey. It is a superbly woven documentary of a man who had a dream and who managed to hold onto that dream, even when the jungle threatened to literally tear him apart. I would have been interested to have seen what the film would have looked like in its entirety with Robards and Jagger in the lead, but despite his constant tantrums, Kinski is a fine actor. Burden of Dreams is one of the most mesmerizing and engaging documentaries you will ever see. I’m not sure whether I prefer Burden of Dreams or Life without Death, but both films are exceptional documentaries and touch you to the bone. Watching Burden of Dreams begs a second viewing of Fitzcarraldo. You’ll never look at filmmaking the same way again after seeing Burden of Dreams, and that’s a fact.