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BURDEN OF DREAMS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Werner Herzog, with Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Mick Jagger
Director:  Les Blank
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  95 Minutes
Release Date:  May 10, 2005

"I'm running out of fantasy..."

Film ***

I'm always surprised when I see German filmmaker Werner Herzog in front of the camera or hear him speaking about his craft...he's never the way I imagine him based on his movies.  I always picture a frothing madman with wild staring eyes and a ferocious temper, much like his frequent star Klaus Kinski.  But Herzog is far from that...gentle, thoughtful, and aware of the ambitions that frequently threaten to crush him.  Risk isn't an act of flamboyance for him; it's an artistic necessity.

Of the five films he made with Kinski, Fitzcarraldo is my personal favorite, and as providence would have it, he hired documentary makers to follow him on what turned out to be a four year epic journey in the Amazon constructing his great vision.  One senses easily that having himself filmed was not an act of ego, but one of desperation, as he may have instinctively known that such a film could end up being the only record of what he tried to accomplish.

Burden of Dreams follows a production beset with as many difficulties as can be conceived.  One would expect hardships when moving a film company from the friendly confines of a carefully controlled studio environment into the jungles of Peru, but Herzog finds himself drowning in troubles like a possible impending tribal war, the loss of his original stars, the ebbing rivers, the mud and muck, the temporary camps that ended up dilapidated after months and months of use...and that's not even addressing his biggest challenge, which was how to drag a full sized steamer ship a mile over a big hill from one river to another.

He used real Peruvian natives for his shoot and paid them much higher than they normally received for their regular daily labors, but the conflict between tribes always threatened the safety of the cast and crew.  At one point, a couple of his extras are badly wounded in a skirmish, and half of his Indians have to go out on an expedition to either prevent or finally start the war. 

He attempted to time his production around the rainy season when the Amazon was full, but delays forced him to shoot when the waters were shallow, leaving to his ship frequently unable to move.  Even more daunting was when his star Jason Robards came down with amoebic dysentery, and the actor's doctor refused to allow him to complete shooting.  Co-star Mick Jagger also had to exit early when the delayed production finally caught up with his Rolling Stones obligations.  Herzog's picture was 40% complete, but he had no choice but to start from scratch with Klaus Kinski.  He never bothered to re-cast Jagger's role, leaving the part out altogether.

The climax of Burden of Dreams, as it was in Fizcarraldo, involved moving the giant steamer over land with available manpower so that the character played by Kinski could eventually set up an opera house in the forbidding jungle.  It was an engineering nightmare.  Herzog employed consultants, who warned that the rigging used to haul the ship could break and result in deaths.  At one point, that's exactly what happens.  We shudder to see what looks like a crushed native, but breathe a sigh of relief when he gets up and walks away relatively unharmed.

Why would any man go to such lengths, putting lives on the line for the sake of a motion picture vision?  I always assumed it was a burning, destructive obsession much like the one Fitzcarraldo carried himself.  But Herzog seems like a relatively sane man.  He understands the perils of his methods, but he just doesn't know any other way to make his movies and explore his themes.

This film feels an awful lot like the more recent documentary Lost in La Mancha, where Terry Gilliam's production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was ravaged by natural and financial problems.  The difference is that Gilliam's vision failed to reach the screen.  Herzog somehow pulled it off.

I recommend this movie as a good companion piece to Herzog's own film.  The only experience comparable to marveling at his epic vision is seeing just how difficult realizing it actually was.

Video **

The film source for this movie is fraught with grain, debris, and print problems, so the overall result of the digital transfer wasn't as good as most Criterion offerings.  It's watchable for what it is, but noticeably flawed.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack is decent and serviceable, with some noticeable noise and not a lot of dynamic range, but no problems with the clarity of spoken words.

Features ***

Director Les Blank and editor Maureen Gosling join up for a commentary track, with separate interventions by Werner Herzog.  The movie is fairly self-spoken in what it conveys, but the artists add a little more information and reflect on their own experiences for your listening pleasure. 

There are two featurettes on Herzog, one made by Les Blank where he literally eats his shoe to pay off a wager to fellow filmmaker Errol Morris, and a new video interview where he reflects on Ftizcarraldo.  There are also two deleted scenes, a trailer, and a photo gallery, and a terrific companion book that compiles notes taken from Blank and Gosling's diaries while shooting.

Summary:

Burden of Dreams could have just as easily documented a monumental failure as it did an eventual triumph, so credit Werner Herzog with the fortitude to hold his vision together under the most extreme kinds of duress.  This is a fascinating movie about a movie and all that goes with trying to get an idea from page to screen.

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