Les Blank's documentary Burden of Dreams about the making of Fitzcarraldo parallels Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, as both chronicle the process of making a film that is plagued with nearly insurmountable obstacles. Both projects suffered from budget constraints, casting problems, and uncooperative weather, but Francis Ford Coppola never had to deal with the political maneuvering and warring Amazon tribes that forced Werner Herzog to pull up stakes and start his project all over in a new location before his film crew was slaughtered.
Fitzcarraldo centers around a rubber baron with the magnificent obsession of building an opera house in the Amazon rain forest to host Caruso. To accomplish his goal requires an even crazier idea--to drag a ship one mile through thick jungle into an adjoining river, using crude block and tackle technology and a lot of indigenous man power. As it turns out, just making a film about this narrative proves to be nearly as difficult as achieving the fictional character's dream. But Herzog stubbornly sticks to his dream and completes the project, firmly establishing his reputation as a maverick director, who also worked to help Peruvian natives to gain control over their land.
The Criterion Collection's release of Blank's documentary is very timely, as it co-incides with the theatrical run of Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man, which chronicles the last year's of charismatic Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor who dreamed of becoming one with the grizzly bear. Ordinarily Blank's film would serve Criterion as supplemental material on disk 2, but they apparently don't have the rights to Fitzcarraldo. Even though Blank's film stands on its own, it works better if you've seen Herzog's film, and film buffs will certainly want both. Criterion includes a commentary by both Herzog and Blank, a reflective current "talking head" interview with Herzog, and Blank's amusing initial documentary short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. That short demonstrates a firm principle held by Herzog, as he had bet now legendary Errol Morris to pursue his dream of making a film:
"Without dreams we would be cows in a field, and I don't want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project."
Herzog's quote serves as his life mantra, and this is thoroughly explored in Burden of Dreams. Lesser men certainly would have given up on the project, but the story behind Fitzcarraldo is the stuff of legend and a major reason that the film has established its high reputation. Initially starring Jason Robarts and Mick Jagger, Herzog came down with severe amoebic dysentery after 40% of the film was completed; he was rushed back to New York and ordered by the doctor not to return to the set.
Thus, Herzog had to begin anew when both Robarts and Jagger left the production, and the only footage salvaged from that time can be seen on Blank's film. Herzog then re-cast reliable Klaus Kinski as his lead and dropped Jagger's part, but the new production continued to battle the elements ranging from hostilities between Peruvian tribes that required relocating the production, to outrageous rumors about Herzog planning a Peruvian Holocaust, to an inordinately dry "rainy" season, to plane crashes, additional tribal conflicts, to engineering failures. As surreal as Fitzcarraldo seems during the climatic ship pulling scenes, it pales when stepping back through Blank's documentary to see the real risks behind the scenes.
Before filming one take of the ship pull, the consulting engineer tells Herzog that 20 or 30 of the 60 men could be killed instantly, and he walks off the project. Later the actor playing the captain of the boat refuses to board the ship before a planned river crash; yet Herzog persists and finds a way to film his magnificent obsession. He's made a career of such moments, continually living on the edge while filming in jungles, in the Sahara, or near active volcanoes.
Adding to the background Blank not only captures the dramatic moments where Herzog risks life and limb to get a shot, but he includes small details that provide necessary natural respites from Herzog's "madness"--colorful ant armies carrying leaves and parrot feathers, indigenous women mashing vegetable pulp to create a traditional alcoholic drink, an argument between two native women over the same man, a bathing sequence and brief interview with prostitutes hired for the bored men in the production (as suggested by the local Catholic priest).
In many ways, Burden of Dreams actually surpasses the fictional film that Herzog creates, but both should be seen for a fuller appreciation. Despite the incredible obstacles and apparent human folly, Herzog's success in completing the film becomes a testament to the power of a righteous dream. But Blank's film pursues a similar path. Capturing the natural beauty of the Amazon rain forest and effectively portraying the plight of the indigenous people, who continually witness their lands shrink under relentless plundering from the modern world, Blank's film achieves its aim. And that makes this incredible cinematic document one of the best of its genre.