Bay Area documentary filmmaker Les Blank has created an eclectic collection of films over the last several years, some of which inform, others that entertain. But, every once in a great while, a documentary comes along that makes the most of the medium. Such is the case with Blank's effort from 1982, 'Burden of Dreams".
"Burden of Dreams" is the story of German director Werner Hertzog and his struggle to create a film in the midst of the jungles of Ecuador. The movie he was making was "Fitzcarraldo", a lavish film depicting an eccentric opera lover's obsessive attempt to build an opera house in the middle of the South American jungle. "Fitzcarraldo" features Klaus Kinski in the title role, and the film is filled with unforgettable imagery, including an incredible sequence using hundreds of natives dragging a huge steamship over a mountain. As outlandish as that sounds, "Burden of Dreams" is actually even more compelling, as Les Blank shows the obsessions that drive everyone in the cast and crew, especially Hertzog himself.
Indeed, as the documentary wears on, we watch as Hertzog begins to descend into madness: his obsession with completing the film begins to rule his life, and the lives of those around him. Worst of all, he seems to be aware of his madness, and almost embraces it. All sorts of disasters strike the set, as Hertzog and Blank deal with warring native tribes, sickness, a lack of any modern conveniences, and worst of all, actual deaths due to accidents while filming.
And still, Hertzog's mania grows, and one can't help but hope for the best, as we watch him become more and more obsessed with his project. Unlike most "making of" documentaries, "Burden of Dreams" is more than a commercial for "Fitzcarraldo", although it unintentionally works as such. It actually has much more narrative power than "Fitzcarraldo", and is truly frightening as an examination of the mind of a filmmaker obsessed with his art.
Copyright 1995 John A. Lavin
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