Monday, August 13, 2012

Burden of Dreams

German director Werner Herzog has much legendry attached to him. It is written that he pulled a gun on Klaus Kinski when his lead actor attempted to walk off the set of their 1972 masterpiece AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD. The director also allegedly hypnotized the actors and crew of that film to get a certain effect.

There's the story of the wager Herzog made with documentarian Errol Morris, betting him that he would not complete his documentary GATES OF HEAVEN. When Morris won the bet, Herzog, per their agreement, boiled and ate one of his shoes. For the filming of his 1982 epic, FITZCARRALDO, Herzog had a group of South American natives haul a huge, 300 + ton ship across a 40 degree sloping mountain ridge. An engineering and logistical nightmare and a real danger to the participants.

Director Les Blank joined Herzog and his crew for the filming of FITZCARRALDO, the subject of Blank's fascinating 1982 documentary BURDEN OF DREAMS, and indeed captured this magnificent and mad feat. No special effects (and certainly no CGI) were used to bring it off. When engineer and financeer alike told Herzog that the scene was impossible and had to be reworked (or excised entirely), the director cried out, "But then I'll lose my central metaphor!".

The opening of BURDEN OF DREAMS features Herzog summarizing his film (still unseen by me). He tells the story of a European entreprenuer in Peru around the turn of the century named Fitzgerald (called "Fitzcarraldo" by the natives) who dreams of building a grandiose opera house deep in the rain forrest. He learns of the plentiful presence of rubber in the land and sees a plan to finance his dream. A steamer ship is acquired to reach the resource which he plans to sell in the marketplace and perhaps hire famous Italian tenor Enrico Caruso to sing in his new venue. Complicating the plan are treacherous rivers and a lack of understanding of the men Fitzcarraldo hires for this impossible mission.

And of course, not just Fitzcarraldo's. Blank's camera captures a classic man obsessed, a meticulous director insisting on location shooting, evocation of local color, real natives as extras. The latter are not accustomed to lengthy periods of living amongst those of other clans, and a host of crises and drama arises. Some of the women decide to fight over someone's husband, with knives.

Kinski, who has hired to play the lead character, was not known for his tact or niceties, and is interviewed in one scene displaying his disdain for such a chaotic, dirty environment. He does not ingratiate himself with locals when he refuses to drink their customary yucca concoction, fermented and spat in by the distillers. For a key scene involing the beverage in FITZCARRALDO, Kinksi, who was concerned about infections (certainly not insult) drinks evaporated milk instead. One source states that Kinksi was so detestable that a native told Herzog he would offer to kill the actor. The director declined.

BURDEN OF DREAMS is a perfect title for the study of a man who repeatedly justifies his mission as an inherent essential, something found (or he would add) on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Nearly everything Herzog says reveals an artist who craves the fantastic, the artistic struggle. He's the sort of person who creates problems when there are none to solve. Herzog is also a paradox, a man who one minute laments how the forests and its inhabitants are disappearing, then damns the whole scene by saying it's not magical enough, desiring more fantasy. He's not seen as a dictatorial, cruel director, but rather one believes he can beat Nature, even in the face of repeated failure.

The delays and set-backs on FITZCARRALDO were significant. Originally, Jason Robards played the title character, with Mick Jagger as his sidekick. After nearly half of principal photography was completed, Robards fell ill and was forbidden by his physicians to return to the jungle. Jagger eventually had to drop out to tour with the Rolling Stones. Herzog scrapped all of the footage (and apparently burned all the celluloid) and started from scratch. He had to choose a new location a thousand miles north as warring tribes made shooting risky for all. From start to finish, Nature laughed at his plans. An often fruitless battle, but so goes the life of one burdened by dreams......

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