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Burden of Dreams Reviews

BURDEN OF DREAMS is Les Blanks's fascinating chronicle of the making of Werner Herzog's FITZCARRALDO (1982), which was filmed in the jungles of Peru under the most arduous and crazed conditions imaginable. In November 1979, Werner Herzog goes to Paraquitos in Peru to begin shooting scenes for his movie FITZCARRALDO, a fact-based story about an eccentric Irishman at the turn-of-the-century who dreamed of constructing an opera house in the Amazon and dragged an enormous riverboat over mountains and through the jungle to accomplish the feat. A border war between Peru and Equador disrupts the filming, as do the power struggles of the native Indians, and in December, Herzog's camp is burned. The crew moves to Iquitos, but the film's star Jason Robards gets dysentery and is forced to quit. With 40 percent of the picture filmed, the production is put on hold while Herzog returns to Germany to convince his financial backers not to pull out, and in the meantime, costar Mick Jagger has to leave the project due to prior commitments. Shooting restarts in 1981 with new stars Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale. Herzog moves the crew 1,500 miles south to an even more remote jungle location, but the rainy season is over and the riverboats used in the film run aground. A bulldozer used to clear a path on the mountain for the boat keeps breaking and the engineer in charge of hauling it quits because of safety concerns and disagreements with Herzog. Shooting proceeds at an exceedingly slow pace and the morale of the cast and crew becomes very low after a native and his wife are injured in an attack by other Indians and a production plane crashes. While filming a dangerous rapids sequence, the boat crashes into some rocks and the cameraman is injured, but in November 1981, the last shot of the film is completed as the boat is finally hauled over the mountain. BURDEN OF DREAMS is structured like a standard making-of promotional "featurette," consisting of candid behind-the-scenes footage, film clips (including scenes of Robards and Jagger's very hammy performances), and interviews with the cast and crew; only in this case, the deadpan style creates a darkly comic contrast between the documentary format and the insanity of the events being recorded. At the center of it all, of course, is the obsessed and possessed Herzog, who states at the beginning that his story is about "the challenge of the impossible" and believing in one's dreams, but by the end, admits that he should "go to a lunatic asylum." More than just being about the making of FITZCARRALDO, the film is an incisive character study about a visionary filmmaker who seems to be oblivious to the fact that the making of his film is becoming as difficult and foolhardy as Fitzcarraldo's own struggles. Herzog actually states that he has to fight "the Devil" and the elements of nature in order to articulate his vision, and his belief that there is a direct correlation between the hardship entailed in making a film and the ultimate quality of the film which compels him to take the cast and crew to shoot in the most remote and isolated locations imaginable. This prompts Kinski to complain about being a "prisoner in this fucking, stinking jungle." There's nothing more absurd than the sight of Herzog screaming directions to the natives in German-accented Spanish, while floating down the Amazon with a camera and blasting Caruso records, or trying to pull a massive boat up a mountain, but these images encapsulate the poetic beauty of Herzog's films at their best, as well as his folie de grandeur. The film also succeeds as an ethnographic study of the culture clash between the natives and the neo-colonial film crew, with Herzog justifying his decision to have separate camps for the crew, claiming to not want to "contaminate" the natives with Western culture, but alas, it's too late--they're already wearing "Saturday Night Fever" and Mickey Mouse T-shirts, and spending their day's wages on Polaroid snapshots of themselves. Herzog's sensitivity to charges that he's exploiting the natives seems genuine, but despite his promise to help the Machuguenga Indians obtain legal title to their land, a post-script informs us that they still had not received it as of 1982. The film makes all too clear that in the end, Herzog, like most great filmmakers, is more interested in re-creating imaginary life than in living in the "real" world. (Profanity.)