Burden of Dreams
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Once with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders one of the triplet godheads of the German New Wave and, alone thereafter, the world's most notorious filmmaking Odysseus/Faust, Werner Herzog has had a fascinating EKG of a career, now in its sixth decade. As quickly as he became a looming figure in the fiery last bloom of the international art film salad days with Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Fata Morgana (1972), Kasper Hauser (1974), Heart of Glass (1976), Stroszek (1977), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), his stock dropped in the '80s and he all but vanished from the film culture frontlines. The reasons were in plain sight: his catapulting risk-taking, his financial carelessness, his decidedly uncommercial sensibility and syntax, his disregard for propulsive narratives. All of this was exemplified for many by Fitzcarraldo, which for all of the insider scorn heaped upon it (or, more to the point, upon the very manner by which Herzog made it, in the jungle, without frontiers) came in on budget, and made money. Herzog had assassinated his own reputation not by failing but by gambling everything on fate and elevating himself above the industry machine.
But then, of course, Herzog toiled mostly in the lowlands of documentary, where he'd always been comfortable, and slowly built a brand new profile for a brand new generation, eventually enjoying an autumnal peak as a reborn Angeleno and as the millennium's most provocative non-fiction filmmaker, and gaining new audiences with Echoes from a Somber Empire (1990), Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), The White Diamond (2004), Grizzly Man (2005), Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), Into the Abyss (2011), and onward. It's a late-act sanctification for those of us for whom Herzog has always been the postwar era's most fabulous and mythopoetic visionary. Herzog makes one kind of film; everything he does, feature or short, fictional or not or somewhere in between, is Herzogian. In the cinematic circus of the illusory, where other filmmakers are lauded for their "style" and "effect," Herzog is the Ludditic deliverer, insisting on the vitality of the actual. Let's call him the primeval postmodernist.
Herzog has also been, because you can thumbnail his procedural M.O. as drop down into the life-threatening wilderness first and ask questions later, a favorite subject for other filmmakers; no other director has had so many films made about him. Burden of Dreams is preeminent among them, a seething piece of Herzogiana that is, among other things, a testament to a near-obsolete way of moviemaking and of thinking about film. Nobody could blame West Coast documentarian Les Blank for reaching for his camera when, in 1979, Herzog flies to Berkeley and visits Alice Waters's restaurant Chez Panisse, to cook a pair of work boots. He'd swore to '70s film student Errol Morris than he'd eat his shoe if Morris ever finished a feature, and so eventually Morris had (Gates of Heaven, 1978). After five hours of braising in stock, Herzog's shoe was ready, and in front of a UC audience, fielded questions while ingesting the garlic-infused leather. (Not the sole; as Herzog explains, you don't eat the bones with the chicken.) Blank's short film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), hasn't been out of circulation since.
Naturally, Blank followed Herzog to document the making of the madman's next film - Fitzcarraldo, which was to be shot entirely in the Amazon, and which entailed pushing a 340-ton steamship over a mountain, from one river to another. The original true tale that inspired Herzog involved a 30-ton ship, which an Irish rubber magnate in Peru named Fitzgerald had disassembled and then reassembled on the other side. This sensible scale and process clearly would not do for Herzog, for whom the real-world spectacle of performing the impossible in the wildest place on Earth wasn't merely a means to an end; it was the entire reason to make a film. Special effects of any kind were not even considered.
The good news for Blank was that Fitzcarraldo had a spectacularly troubled production, between crew injuries, plane crashes, cast changes (Jason Robards and Mick Jagger were going to star until Robards got dysentery), the incendiary and possibly psychotic presence of Klaus Kinski as the new lead, the semi-permanent state of war of the local Indian tribes (stray arrow wounds were common), a tension-heightening border dispute between Peru and Ecuador, drought, malaria, murder threats, and, let's face it, the circumstances produced by Herzog's outrageous production scenario, which terrified the locals and injured untold workers. Throughout it all, Herzog stands like a thin tree in a hurricane, pushing forward long after an ordinary film production would've shut down, and defying astronomical odds and huge social forces and nature itself. The ordeal would take almost four years, and Blank crafts it into a resoundingly Herzogian epic that's not unlike Fitzcarraldo itself - in fact, the two films are two sides of a diptych, both portraying two slightly insane megalomaniacal men determined to bulldoze into the precivilized wilderness and push a giant ship over a mountain for reasons that, even to them, remain unclear.
Which is the mysterious beauty and metaphorical grandeur of both films in a nutshell - there's something essential and maddeningly human at the heart of the imagery both Herzog and Blank capture - that ship - a giant, ridiculous, disastrous symbol of human folly and the grotesque triumph of mankind's will over nature. Still, Blank's film is a distinctive version of events, and very textually different than the film Herzog himself might've actually cooked up in its place. For Herzog, the documentary had "nothing to do with the shooting of this strange movie," as he was quoted this past April when Blank died at 78. "It was a justifiable perspective. For Les what the native Indians were cooking was much more important than what we were doing. He created his own little universe. If Burden of Dreams had just been the making of Fitzcarraldo then it would have been lousy. He had the talent to spot the significant moments."
Both Herzog and Blank had a respect for experiential authenticity that escapes most filmmakers today, even documentarians - the degree to which they both allowed nature and fate and happenstance to dictate the shape of their films is nowadays unheard of. (This is ironic, given Fitzcarraldo's proto-colonialist reality - which, for Herzog in the story of his film and in his berserk production as Blank sees it, translates to a latent wish to see the colonial project, represented by the boat, crash and burn.) It is this authenticity that glues your eyeballs - will you look at that? Knee-deep in Burden of Dreams, or Fitzcarraldo, or any dozen other Herzog films, you could be forgiven for wondering if we don't in fact dwell on Planet Werner, and live each ordinary day blithely, distractedly ignorant of that fact.
By Mike Atkinson