Werner Herzog and the Burden of Dreams (1982)

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To view Burden of Dreams click here.

“If I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project.”

That’s how Werner Herzog responded to his investors in Germany asking him if he had the will to go on and finish his film, Fitzcarraldo (1982). If you’ve come to know Herzog over the years, you know that this statement is nothing out of the ordinary. Herzog has never expressed himself in delicate or fragile terms. He prefers to tell it in the most operatic way possible and he gets away with it because you believe him. You believe his dedication to his dreams does indeed become a burden he must drag behind him everywhere he goes. Fitzcarraldo started out as an idea in the mid-1970s and entered into pre-production sometime around 1977. After a year and a half of mapping out logistics and searching for a suitable filming location along the Amazon, Herzog finally set up camp in November, 1979. That’s when everything went to hell.

Les Blank, the great documentarian, was with Herzog the whole time, filming the production behind the scenes. He begins his documentary with Herzog giving a point by point plot description of the movie so, if you haven’t already seen it, see Fitzcarraldo first, if at all possible. Herzog talks about his inspiration coming from a 19th century rubber baron, Carlos Fitzcarrald. The real life figure once had an entire steamship disassembled and reassembled after it had been carried across an isthmus. Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo would have his ship famously dragged over a mountain. Of course, the documentary isn’t all about the ship. It’s about Herzog, his obsession and the obvious connections he felt, on some level, with his lead character. And the production. The hellish production.

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The first set was, shall we say, problematic. The local people, the Aguaruna, initially let him set up camp but rival factions began to spread rumors about the director and his intentions and the situation quickly became hopeless. How hopeless? Well, let’s just say that when dozens of armed men surround your film camp and tell you to leave before they burn it to the ground, you’re probably past the negotiation stage. Needless to say, Herzog and company fled and the camp was burned down. Then another 18 months passed before Herzog found another suitable location. Somehow, he didn’t just give up.

He cast Jason Robards as Fitzcarraldo and Mick Jagger as his sidekick, Wilbur. After completing almost half of the movie, Robards came down with a bad case of dysentery, so bad he had to be flown back to the states. He was there for weeks as the production ground to a halt and then sent word that he wouldn’t be coming back. It was at this point that Jagger let Herzog know that the Rolling Stones had a new album coming out, Tattoo You, and he needed to leave for tour dates. That’s when Herzog went to the backers in Germany that led to the quote that opens this piece. Read that quote again now that you know the circumstances and with the knowledge that the investors didn’t back out. No one, and I mean no one, would blame an investor for backing out of project that was already entering its fourth year without anything to show for it but dailies that could never be used. And yet they didn’t. That’s what I mean when I say you believe Herzog. You believe in his conviction and he doesn’t let you down. It may take a lifetime, or at least feel like one, but dammit, he’s going to finish the movie. And that’s just what he did, aided by his onscreen doppelganger Klaus Kinski, a great actor but, let’s face it, a remarkably awful human being. The locals hated him almost as much as Herzog, or is it the other way around? Who can be sure?

There’s an inadvertently humorous line in an article about the film online that says “some” have compared Herzog to Fitzcarraldo. That’s funny, I thought everyone who’s seen the film has done that. There are wild similarities, even before we address the matter of the boat. Both men have an obsession with expressing themselves through art, often at the detriment of everyone around them. Both men are obviously driven to extremes, temperamental and rigid in their desires. And, yes, there’s the boat. It’s clear that Herzog, like Fitzcarraldo, will not stop until he gets that damn boat over that mountain. He buys three boats for the film (one for the river, one for the rapids, and one for the mountain) and then finds out getting a steamship over a mountain is even harder than it sounds, and it sounds impossible. Eventually, after months, delays and an entirely new engineering team, the boat gets over the top and Herzog gets to finish his movie. But not before he and Kinski have an insane adventure on the rapids, as the steamship smashes against the rocks while Herzog bemoans that Kinski ran from his stone perch before the ship hit them. “Of course I did, that’s the idea, I’m not an idiot!”

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In the end, we are left with Werner Herzog, looking us straight in the eye and saying, as only he can, that no one will ever convince him to be happy about this movie. Yes, after almost five years and countless hardships, he remains suspicious of his own work. He did it because he had to, because his mind could not rest until it was realized. It’s almost as if he made it to quiet the voices in his head. If that doesn’t demonstrate the burden of dreams, nothing else can, or ever will.

Greg Ferrara

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10 Responses Werner Herzog and the Burden of Dreams (1982)
Posted By Doug : July 21, 2017 2:51 pm

I’d say the the happiest of us are those who temper our dreams with Reality. Some dreams should remain unrealized. Egocentricism isn’t always Art-sometimes it’s selfishness masquerading as Purpose.

Posted By Emgee : July 21, 2017 3:24 pm

Would Fitzcarraldo have been as good a movie if Herzog had pretended he had dragged the ship over the hill? Does it make any difference? It adds to the mystique surrounding both the movie and its director and makes for a fascinating documentary, but does it add anyting to the movie itself? I find that impossible to decide.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 21, 2017 3:48 pm

Doug, when you look at Herzog’s body of work after Fitzcarraldo, it’s hard to say if he began tempering his dreams or not. Most of the fiction work still involved laborious on-location shoots, period detail, and the like. But he didn’t try to drag a ship over a mountain again.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 21, 2017 3:50 pm

Emgee, same here. Who knows what it would be without it? What I do know for myself is that watching the footage of Jason Robards and Mick Jagger in the unused scenes makes me very happy they backed out. Love them both and Robards is an all-time favorite, but their personalities don’t feel right for the story. Not like that crazy bastard Kinski does.

Posted By Emgee : July 21, 2017 3:57 pm

Robards is too laid-back and laconic; Fitzcarraldo needed that manic quality Kinski gave to the role.

Speaking of: i’m sure most readers of this blog have seen it,but if not, go see My Best Fiend, Herzog’s documentary about Krazy Klaus.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 21, 2017 8:30 pm

That’s a great one. That’s the one where, if I’m remembering correctly, Herzog relates that it was on the set of Fitzcarraldo that a local chief offered to kill Kinski if he wanted but Herzog said he needed him to finish the movie.

Posted By George : July 21, 2017 9:42 pm

MY BEST FIEND can be viewed for free on YouTube. I also recommend it.

Posted By George : July 21, 2017 10:25 pm

Klaus Kinski meets David Letterman, 1983.

“How do you and Mr. Herzog get along?”

“Not at all!”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPaqCfIvGao

Posted By Mads Andersen : July 24, 2017 9:21 pm

I have only ever watched Herzog’s documentaries, which I always enjoy. Can’t think of a single one of them I am not enthralled with. Been wanting to watch Fitzcarraldo for a while now, suppose I should get at it. I will probably end up watching Burden first, though.

Posted By swac44 : August 15, 2017 4:43 pm

Also necessary viewing is Aguirre: The Wrath of God, which was about as trying an experience as Fitzcarraldo, again working with Kinski. They’re practically the same movie, setting down a South American river with an impossible dream, but both are indispensible.

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