Burden of Dreams

Burden of Dreams (1982) is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the people and places involved in the making of Werner Herzog’s jungle epic Fitzcarraldo (1982), the story of one man’s impossible dream to bring Opera to the Amazon jungles of South America as a metaphor for conquering our darker primal nature through enlightenment by enchanting the Peruvian natives with music.

Les Blank was hired to document the making of this grand sweeping adventure tale as it was being shot in the most isolated and inhospitable tropical forests of Peru. The herculean task of bring this film to life became just as harrowing as the adventure story it was depicting, which Herzog says is based on a news story he read.

The making of Herzog’s jungle odyssey Fitzcarraldo, is an epic tale of man’s struggle against nature that has much in common with the making of Apocalypse Now (1979), which was documented in the film Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991).

While on location Herzog’s cast and crew lived in the remote jungle for months among wild animals and tribes of native Indians. Indigenes tribes where used in the film as actors and we discover how the rivalries among these natives led to some extremely dangerous situations for the film crew.

At one point in the story of Fitzcarraldo, the eccentric character of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), obsessed with building an Opera house in the jungle, must find a way to haul his mammoth three deck riverboat over a steep hill between two river tributaries. With the help of the Machiguenga and Asháninka Indians using only the raw materials found in the jungle, they must clear the rainforest by hand to create a land passage through the jungle.

The jungle and the enormous river ferryboat become characters in the film symbolizing the grueling up-hill struggle of one man’s passion for Opera music. Herzog likens it to his own chaotic and sometimes absurd battles to get his films made. He says ‘If we don’t strive to realize our dreams than life is meaningless’. 

Coming from a documentary background and for the sake of art and realism, Herzog attempts to achieve this part of the film by doing it for real; actually bulldozing a path through the jungle and pulling a real life-sized riverboat over a large steep chunk of Peruvian jungle.

Much like the heavy unwieldy riverboat slowly being dragged through the mud, the film production is eventually bogged down and engulfed in its own mounting obstacles that include financing, politics, accidents, conflicts with the crew and the natives, weather, and the wild unpredictable antics of the lead actor Klaus Kinski.

Herzog and Kinski’s collaborations have become legendary, an infamous partnership that spans 5 classic films including Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Cobra Verde (1987), and their earlier classic jungle epic Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972).

This extraordinary documentary is a must-see for anyone interested in movies, filmmaking and anthropology, and a perfect companion piece to the film itself. Fitzcarraldo is Herzog’s magnum opus, his most ambitious masterpiece and a timeless piece of art, and this document of its making is invaluable for its insight into the process and motivations of those involved in its creation.


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