If Les Blank's jaw-dropping documentary Burden Of Dreams hadn't been first out of the box, its title might have applied to several subsequent making-of films, most notably 1991's Hearts Of Darkness (about Francis Ford Coppola's famously troubled production of Apocalypse Now) and 2002's Lost In La Mancha (about Terry Gilliam's aborted Don Quixote project). Each of these films centers on a half-mad visionary who's hijacking everyone—cast, crew, and nervous financiers—for an experiment in method filmmaking: In order to tell the story right, these directors insist, the production must embark on the kind of arduous journeys they depict. It's certainly not a practical way to go about making movies, but they're convinced that the finished product will be stained with authenticity that would be unthinkable for a movie made in the safe, air-conditioned confines of a studio back lot. Just as Hearts Of Darkness is as compelling an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel as Apocalypse Now, Blank's Burden Of Dreams follows a maniacal Werner Herzog as he one-ups his blinkered hero in Fitzcarraldo, the tall-tale biography of a rubber magnate who builds an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle.
Shot in Peru over a three-year period, Fitzcarraldo began with Jason Robards in the title role and Mick Jagger as his deranged sidekick, but production was halted after Robards became ill and delays forced Jagger to return to The Rolling Stones. Burden Of Dreams includes a few clips of what might have been had Robards and Jagger stayed on, but Blank and his editor/sound recordist Maureen Gosling mostly focus on Herzog's second attempt to make the movie, this time with the temperamental Klaus Kinski in the lead. True to his reputation for self-imposed hardships, Herzog insisted on shooting in a remote location about 1,500 miles downstream from the nearest major city, employing hundreds of native Indians to serve as laborers and extras. Fitzcarraldo's central sequence deals with Kinski's attempts to drag a full-size steamboat over a small mountain to a river on the other side, but instead of using models, Herzog and his technicians devised a primitive pulley system, manned by the locals, to pull the 320-ton behemoth up the slippery slope by hand. Never mind that the real Fitzcarraldo took the boat apart and moved it over piece by piece; for Herzog, the Sisyphusian task of hauling an entire boat made for a stronger metaphor.
The "burden" in Burden Of Dreams doesn't just apply to Herzog, who's reduced in the end to cursing the jungle for its violence and obscenity ("It's a land that God, if he exists, has created in anger"), but also to the Indians who risked their lives to realize his vision. At one point, the pulley system's designer pulls out in disgust, predicting a 70 percent chance that the system will collapse, leading to catastrophe. On a new 40-minute interview included on the DVD, Herzog insists that higher safety standards were introduced—a fact that Blank never really elucidates—but his dreams take a toll, and the film views his passion as something between insanity and inspiration. For further evidence, the DVD also includes Blank's 20-minute short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, in which Herzog cooks and eats a leather shoe as penalty for losing his bet that Errol Morris would never complete his great documentary Gates Of Heaven. Clearly, Herzog will do anything for his art, and with Fitzcarraldo, he expected others to follow.