Commenting on the Comment
I live my life or I end my life with this project.
—Werner Herzog, Burden of Dreams
For me it is not very important to see and understand how participants judge the film. For me it’s more important to see how a regular audience sees a film, and judges a film, and lives in the images, and the fantasies and the visions of a film.
—Werner Herzog, commentary, Burden of Dreams: Criterion Collection
“I’d heard stories about Werner,” says Les Blank, “going to places like the Caribbean and climbing a volcano that was due to go off at any minute, and I didn’t think it was the safest adventure to go with Werner to the Amazon to pull this giant ship over a hill in the middle of nowhere.” And yet, Blank and his editor Maureen Gosling went along, after Blank shot Herzog eating his shoe (to “fulfill a vow he claims he made to Errol Morris”), and found the notoriously irascible director “could take direction and… had a sense of humor and he looked good on film.”
Herzog’s Amazon project, initiated in 1976 and wrapped in 1981, was the much beleaguered, wholly fascinating Fitzcarraldo. Blank and Gosling’s equally excellent making-of documentary, Burden of Dreams is now released to a Criterion Collection DVD, which, along with two spliced-together commentary tracks, by the filmmakers and by Herzog, includes the remarkable Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), a book with Blank and Gosling’s journal entries, and a terrific 2005 interview with Herzog, reconsidering Fitzcarraldo “through the lens of” Burden, divided into four parts.
Burden opens on images of the jungle and Andes foothills viewed from a plane, the landing in a village (“What we’re seeing,” offers Gosling, “is a little village, a very typical shot, kind of airplane, kind of airstrip, kind of people that you would meet in this part of the world”), and then shots of Herzog, youthful, wild-haired (he describes his first impression of Blank in the commentary track: “I instantly loved Les’ films and I loved his cooking and I loved his attitude toward life”). He appears variously, describing his film’s plot, saving a deer from the river, playing soccer with local kids (“He was trying to establish friendships… occasionally having time to relax,” says Gosling, as we see him sprinting and laughing, pale and shirtless).
Cut to a local leader decrying the film production, because “they never considered the communities here had their own authorities. They never respected the authorities here.” As Blank and Gosling remember, one group drove them from their camp and burned it to the ground, as local leaders believed the film production was exploiting local resources and laborers (paying $3.50 a day, the “going wage”) were exacerbated by intertribal disagreements (the Aguarunas, Blank adds, were descended fro a tribe famous for shrinking heads and eating enemies), and a developing border war between Ecuador and Peru. In Blank’s film, Herzog says, “We are necessary as an enemy that an be beaten, because they will not dare to attack the military camps… or petrol companies, but since we are small, we may be the losers.”
Eventually driven from their first location, the film crew left, found another place to shoot, and returned in 1981, without original stars Jason Robards and Mick Jagger as Fitzcarraldo and his sidekick Wilbur. Herzog says in his commentary, that he didn’t want to lose Jagger because “he was very, very good, and very strange,” and wrote the part out of the film altogether when he cast his “best fiend” Klaus Kinski (who had journeyed with Herzog in the Amazon for Aguirre: The Wrath of God) as the obsessed music lover determined to build an opera house in Iquitos (Blank uses footage of Robards and Jagger, though Blank never had a chance to shoot them.
Kinski’s arrival marks the beginning of Burden‘s ostensible subject, the making of Fitzcarraldo, and he fills up frames, grand and brilliant, laughing with kids, wading through river water, charming Cardinale, and listening to Caruso (“The voice of Caruso,” observes Herzog in the commentary, “is in a way the leading character in the film”). The sheer number of hours that went into Fitzcarraldo is stunning, as the crew put together three like steamships (“One stays in Iquitos, and another goes over the hill, and a third to take on the river, including “the Rapids of Death”), traveled to “remote jungle locations,” and worked through “four or five or six languages.”
The relationship between Herzog and Kinski—an endlessly intriguing subject—becomes an inevitable focus for Burden. While Gosling says that Herzog, whom she had anticipated would be “dogmatic,” was, as a director, “calm and I only saw him get mad at a scene one time, I think, while we were there.” Kinski, she says, “is one of those people who needs constant attention and is totally ego-involved, and very volatile and picky.” He was also “totally professional” when it came time to do his work, doing retakes, climbing trees, and sometimes revealing his sense of humor.
“I had two things running through my mind,” says Blank, watching the ship steam along, “One was Moby Dick, I kept seeing the white whale and Captain Ahab in all of this, and also Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and other novels by Joseph Conrad… It was a magical kind of environment.” (Seven people who died during filming, he notes, were not related to the filming per se, including a drowning after hours and two deaths by disease acquired before shooting.) The crew is here dealing daily with logistics (being 800 miles from a needed torchlight or fuel, lugging heavy equipment around) and time and geography (each day losing light, running into weather, falling behind schedule).
Fitzcarraldo itself treads a fine line between grandiose fiction and documentary, in its use of local cast and crew members, its “real” stunts, its efforts to represent a wild, magical world. As Herzog insists, as his young self in Burdens, “I don’t feel like making a documentary on the Campas, and it should not end up as an ethnographic film. I also stylize them, and I have them in the film as they probably are not precisely in their normal life… They act in that film, and that interests me even more. Yet they have an authenticity of their culture, and their behavior and movements, their language in it, that will just disappear from the face of this earth. I don’t want to live in a world where there are no lions anymore, or where there are no people like lions, and they are lions.”
Complex, ambitious, inspired, Herzog here talks his way through the making of his movie with a remarkable self-consciousness, attuned to the effects of cameras on subjects even as he is such a subject. Feeling an obligation to preserve (and to an extent, mourn), he also performs himself, as documentary subject and character. Blank and Gosling admire his “bravado” and “athleticism,” as well as his “passion for being close to the edge,” even as they recognize the reasons for viewers’ revulsion at what they perceive as Herzog’s troubling “treatment of the natives.” Blank says, “I feel like he did have empathy with them, and did respect their values.” At least he was enthusiastic: when two of the locals working on the crew are attacked with spears by a rival tribe, a revenge raid and show of strength is planned; though Herzog wants initially to go along on this outing, he decides against it (to everyone’s relief), though he supplies the raiding party with guns he’s brought along for the shoot.
As the film observes Herzog, it doesn’t so much get inside his head as it allows him to tell his story. Gosling asserts that Burden‘s structure is “not based on our experience and our chronology of shooting, it’s based on the stories of Fitzcarraldo and to an extent, the experience of Werner’s psyche changing through this experience.”
To this point, the documentary insists on the vastness and beauty of the Amazonian environment, revealing it in aerial shots, moving behind Herzog as he speaks. “There’s a part of Werner,” says Gosling as she watches her subject describe the work of carrying the ship across the mountain. His own famous rearranging of nature has since been compared to Fitzcarraldo’s, but Herzog is more complicated than obsessive or strictly fierce. Philosophical and self-critical, Herzog seeks not order but exploration. Gosling sees a part of Herzog “that is very much involved with nature… but there’s another part of him that seems not integrated with the natural world, so it feels like a real conflict here. And he’s taking it out on nature.” Blank agrees: “For him it was all a big movie set.” Just after, Herzog notes in the commentary that, as Burden³ is a comment on Fitzcarraldo, it’s strange to be “commenting on the comment.”
Just so, he describes his dream of dreams, “in pulling a ship over a mountain.” He continues, “I believe that when you do this in reality, there’s something that is created which is so far out of human experience, it seems to be a dream vision within us. It is not time-related… Those who make the films sometimes manage in rare moments to articulate those dreams, and that’s what I am striving for.” Sometimes, the striving is all. Resolution, conclusion, and peace, these seem delusional. In “nature,” which overwhelms all human figures in Fitzcarraldo, Herzog sees risk, amoral cycles of life and death, and occasional chaos.
“Of course, we are challenging nature itself,” he says in Burden.
And it hits back. That’s all, and that’s what’s grandiose about it. And we have to accept that it is much stronger than we are. Kinski always says that it’s full of erotic elements. I don’t see it so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. It’s just, nature here is vile and base. I don’t see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away.
As Blank and Gosling recall here, they were moved by Herzog’s speech, and slightly stunned, and when they showed the film to an audience, they were surprise to hear laughter at all this pontificating. It is an incredible speech, at once “grandiose” and crazed, and yet it is also gorgeous and alarming, humble and humbling.