BURDEN OF DREAMS
1982Director / Producer / Cinematography: Les Blank
It's hard to recall a more revealing portrait of a filmmaker and filmmaking
- L.A. Times
Just about anyone seriously interested in the filmmaking process will find what transpires here continually absorbing.
- Variety, 23/3/82
Les Blank's legendary film of the making of Werner Herzog's quirky 1982 feature Fitzcarraldo proves that a documentary on the making of a film can be more fascinating than the film itself. Herzog's film is about a crazed Irish entrepreneur obsessed with bringing grand opera to a desolate village in the Amazon jungle. Blank's film is about a crazed German movie director obsessed with making this movie, on location in the actual Amazon setting. Herzog gets his film; Blank gets a better one.
- The Entertainment Weekly Guide to the Greatest Movies Ever Made, New York, 1994
"If I abandon this project I would be without dreams," says German director Werner Herzog. "I either begin or end my life with this movie." Herzog is the subject of documentarian Les Blank's record of the five-year effort to complete a feature called Fitzcarraldo, which was filmed on location in the Peruvian jungle. Burden of Dreams is a chilling chronicle of an artistic obsession that tips over into near-lunacy - one of the most vivid studies of the creative process ever filmed. For Fitzcarraldo Herzog's quest for 'realism' drove him to haul a 300 ton river steamer up a 45-degree hill, a three month effort that endangered the lives of 60 extras and a dozen filmmakers. Toward the end of his mad struggle, Herzog faces Blank's camera and denounces the jungle itself, seeing nothing there but "misery, blood and fornication. Even the stars in the sky out here are a mess." In movies, more than in any other art form, the line between truth and fiction is stretched thin and Herzog seems to teeter on it like a crazed tightrope walker. Don't miss this one.
- David Chute, L.A. Herald Examiner, 12/3/82
Last September Les Blank and Maureen Gosling hastily spliced together forty minutes of dailies - mostly interviews with Werner Herzog on location in Peru - to show at Telluride Film Festival as a work in progress. In a sense, they were asking for trouble. Herzog is a controversial figure at Telluride. Some people consider him a hero; others hate his guts. Predictably, reaction to the unedited footage was explosive.
Everyone agreed that it was stunning - some said it was the best work Blank had ever done - but without context, Herzog's visionary monologues made him seem wildly egomaniacal. A number of people agreed with Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas that it was "the most devastating portrait of a filmmaker ever made." Controversy raged long after the screening, with heated arguments about artistic responsibility, aetheticization of suffering, and whether art was worth the loss of even one human life.
Rumours circulated that Herzog's friend, director Volker Schlondorff, was offering to buy the negative from Blank on the spot so no one would ever see it again. But, according to Blank, he never made the offer. Carlos Diegues, the director of Bye Bye Brazil, was reportedly so upset with what he saw as Herzog's shameless pride and indifference to human misery that he became ill and had to leave the auditorium. In a long piece in the Times, Kevin Thomas cited one observer's comparison of Herzog and Kinski to Hitler and Goebbels, and concluded "Blank's film shows us an utterly humourless man spouting a lot of half-baked delirious romanticism." Blank was furious with Thomas's article which he characterised as "unfair" and "premature".
Blank was understandably uneasy - since Herzog had not yet signed a release to appear in the film.
First word from Herzog after the Telluride incident was an urgent request that there be no more screenings until he could see the footage. Shortly thereafter he showed up in Blank's editing room in El Cerrito, California, and looked at five hours of dailies. He was uneasy about several sequences - a few monologues, an interview about sanitation in Belen - but the decision to use them or not was left to Blank. For the most part Herzog was pleased with what he saw, Blank and Gosling were relieved, and set about building a film for PBS.
In January, they screened a two hour rough cut of the film, with a working title of Peculia o Muerte, at Berkeley's prestigious Pacific Film Archive. Two capacity audiences seemed to love every minute, but there was some confusion, "We heard about Telluride," someone said "and how bad Werner came off. What happened to that footage. Did you cut it out?"
"It's all still in there," Blank insisted. "But now, instead of just watching Werner go crazy, you can see all the stuff that's making him crazy. That's what editing is all about." On March 23, a nearly final version of the film, now titled Burden of Dreams, was shown at Filmex. The audience was enthusiastic and all the reviews were highly favourable - but the review that meant the most to Blank was Kevin Thomas's. The finished film "is not merely more comprehensive than the controversial forty minutes (Blank) showed at the last Telluride festival," Thomas wrote. "Herzog, now in context, doesn't seem quite the madman he did before. It's hard to remember a more revealing portrait of a filmmaker and filmmaking."
On April 4, Herzog turned up in the Bay Area to look at the final version of Burden of Dreams. He sat on the hard wooden steps of the stockroom at Arhoolie Records that Blank uses as a makeshift screening room and watched the now ninety-three minute film, taking occasional swigs from a bottle of potent Aguardiente that his friend, a lady sheriff, had provided. When the film was over he got up without a word, walked over to Blank, kissed him on both cheeks and the forehead, and playfully pulled his beard.
"You shouldn't touch this film any more" Herzog said. "It's completely unique. It's not even embarrassing, which is remarkable, since filmmakers almost always look stupid when you see films about them. It's because filmmaking is illusionist's work. A cook never looks stupid in a film, only a filmmaker."
That evening Herzog screened a print of Fitzcarraldo for Blank, Gosling, and a few friends, providing an improvised 'voice-over' translation of the German. When the lights came up, Herzog looked around. "Did you ever expect me to make such a funny film?" he asked with his familiar mischievous grin. Blank popped the cork on a bottle of champagne, poured some for everyone, and raised his glass. "To the conquistador of the useless!" he toasted, quoting a line from Fitzcarraldo. "To Werner Herzog!"
- Michael Goodwin, American Film, 6/82