Burden Of Dreams reveals the madness behind a Werner Herzog madness epic

Burden Of Dreams reveals the madness behind a Werner Herzog madness epic

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Room 237 has us thinking about documentaries about movies.

Burden Of Dreams (1982)
Even if Les Blank’s documentary Burden Of Dreams had no other value, it’d be worth watching just for its footage of a movie that never came to fruition. Werner Herzog’s 1982 classic Fitzcarraldo was originally set to star Jason Robards and Mick Jagger, but the former became seriously ill about 40 percent of the way through the shoot, and his New York doctor forbid him to return to the set; as delays dragged on, Jagger returned to touring with The Rolling Stones. The footage Blank salvaged from their scenes—nearly identical to the sequences in the finished film, but with two extremely different, extremely familiar faces in the lead roles—is all that remains from their version. Herzog destroyed the rest of the film.

But even without shots from what amounts to an alternate-dimension version of the film, Burden Of Dreams would be fascinating viewing. Blank was on site for the making of Fitzcarraldo, in which a fanatical madman (frequent Herzog partner Klaus Kinski, the subject of another fantastic behind-the-scenes documentary, Herzog’s My Best Fiend) decides to build an opera house in the Peruvian jungle. To finance the project, he decides to pull a towering, 340-ton steamship over a mountain, to gain exclusive access to an otherwise-inaccessible stretch of virgin rubber-harvesting territory. Herzog ambitiously concluded that the best way to film this project was to actually hoist a ship over a mountain in Peru, with the help of some 800 Peruvian Indians as a labor force. Blank captures the strain on Herzog as his production perpetually teeters on the edge of collapse, with injuries, crew rebellion, an Indian border war, and the seeming impossibility of the boat project all working against him. Herzog has spent a lifetime documenting obsession and madness in documentary and fiction features, but this time, the camera turns on him, and finds him clearly just as driven and irrational a visionary as his typical protagonists and subjects.

Availability: Streaming on Hulu Plus, available for digital rental on Amazon and iTunes, and available on DVD from Criterion. Fitzcarraldo is less widely available, on DVD only, but it’s essential watching before Burden Of Dreams. (And also just in general.)

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