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A documentary on the chaotic production of 'Werner Herzog''s epic Fitzcarraldo (1982), showing how the film managed to get made despite problems that would have floored a less obsessively driven director. Not only does he have major casting problems, losing both Jason Robards (health) and Mick Jagger (other commitments) halfway through shooting, but the crew gets caught up in a war between Peru and Ecuador, there are problems with the weather and the morale of cast and crew is falling rapidly. Written by
Michael Brooke <email@example.com>
a hybrid documentary of an incredible, relentlessly reckless story of film-making, and of a little anthropology too
Werner Herzog, the filmmaker behind Fitzcarraldo that the director Les Blank is documenting (in part) with his Burden of Dreams, says that he has no interest in making a documentary about the Natives that are all around throughout the filming, who are apart of the cast as extras and also do labor. I wonder if Blank had intended to make his documentary with them as well, but here we have Burden of Dreams going between states of mind, of one mind-set being one of the most troubled and ambitious auteur projects of the past half century in film, and another mind-set being the people. In a sense, that line Dr. Lecter quotes from Marcus Aurelius in Silence of the Lambs comes to mind- what is it's nature? In this case, the 'nature' is of not just one specific thing but a few: what is the nature of the jungle (or rather the nature of nature), the nature of a tribe of people who could see this film crew and this director with his insatiable visions as something quite alien, and vice-versa at times, and the nature of film-making in general, particularly a film that by the dictations of the script and the wills of its director demand to go for the impossible. It's almost no wonder at one point that Herzog says, "I shouldn't make films anymore, I should be in a lunatic asylum."
While not everything that could go wrong on a film goes wrong on Fitzcarraldo- the making of it I mean, not the film, of which I've yet to actually see myself- but it comes close. Along with Hearts of Darkness and Lost in La Mancha, Blank's film ranks as a contender for showing the most chaotic film production imaginable, but perhaps outdoes the others with Blank's purer skills as a documentarian. One might almost hope at times that Blank might editorialize, but there's none of that here. The narration as well just gives the facts as if reading out of a film magazine. And what's extraordinary though is that you don't need to see Fitzcarraldo to understand what the film's about through this one. The story is, as Herzog describes, about opera in the jungle, and how an obsessed opera fan (played by Klaus Kinski) decides to lug his ship over a mountain so he can build an opera in the jungle. Soon, however, Blank shows that this very act becomes an even more daunting task/metaphor than Herzog might have intended, but never do we see him decide to just give up. "I live my life or I end my life with this picture," Herzog says.
It would be one thing if Blank just looked at the film-making process from start to finish with Fitzcarraldo, and I imagine Blank probably had enough footage to make for an even longer film just covering the odds & ends of filming. But we as the viewer soon come to realize that to make Fitzcarraldo requires an understanding of the people behind it, not just the main man behind it, but of the tribe. It's interesting to note that the natives Herzog uses the first time around show one side of the 'nature' of what comes in filming in foreign territory: they attack the film crew, forcing Herzog to find a new location. This first major set-back is only covered briefly early on in the film, but it fascinated me how Herzog still remained undeterred, even though it ended up taking him another year to settle on the final locations. Then Blank turns his camera on the natives lending their support (for more money than they usually get with the usual labor they work for), and it's done sometimes with the same care of getting great glimpses of the culture, of what habits and customs are with them (like the alcohol/fruit that's a given for them), and how the tensions start to rise as the film backs up. Blank's camera is terrifically poised in these moments, and he ends up also getting a fine comparison between the film crew itself. Only Kinski, who I would think would be the only person more of interest, is usually left out, which is disappointing.
But the real excitement is seeing the daily struggles of filming, and how the boat-over-the-mountain metaphor becomes apart of this struggle, be it something small like getting a rubber-skewer right (which is very funny), or in getting that toughest of shots at the "magic hour" of the dusk. And the problems keep mounting, until what we see is a filmmaker almost too reckless for his own good, yet perhaps for his own sanity as well. I can't imagine what might have happened to Werner Herzog had he not taken that final shot, or if he had, like Coppola to an extent with Apocalypse Now, sort of succumbed to the jungle's dangers like a Conrad character. What we end up seeing of Herzog is perhaps a man under the duress and total stress of film-making- or total control, who can say- but even when he's at his bleakest statements, it's never boring or pretentious to hear what Herzog has to say about the jungle or the people or to see how he directs. And around Herzog, and that giant boat, and the natives and the jungle, Blank creates the kind of behind-the-scenes documentary unique, where psychology and anthropology get brilliant put into the context of 'filming dreams', as it were.
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