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Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo is the story of an Irishman (played by Klaus Kinski) who drags a steamboat over a hill; and in Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, we have a front row seat to Herzog's madness and ambition, as he decides to drag the 340-ton monolith over a hill. Now keep in mind, the real-life inspiration for Fitzcarraldo, Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald, didn't even bother to do that; he simply brought the ship over in parts.
Prior to Burden of Dreams, Blank had established himself as a anthropological documentarian of notable sensitivity, and his work had focused mostly on a variety of American musical forms, from the blues to Tex-mex. He has a remarkably even eye as an artist, and he lets you into whatever world he's watching, without judgment. A friendship with Herzog and a bet with Errol Morris led to the short, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (self-explanatory), which then led to a job documenting the making of Herzog's next film. Little did they know what they were getting into.
Fitzcarraldo originally starred Jason Robards and Mick Jagger; however, when sickness and the Rolling Stones called, Herzog had to reboot with his longtime collaborator Kinski. They shot in the Peruvian jungle, 1500 miles away from civilization, caught in the middle of a tribal war and the ever-mercurial demands of weather. Herzog, Kinski, and the Campa extras all seem to have a bit of jungle madness. Blank does a marvelous job of placing the audience in the jungle; Herzog's morphing into his own version of Fitzcarraldo may drive the film, but the many shots of monkeys and animals and the land create a palpable mood.
Arguably the best making-of doc ever, Burden of Dreams inspired Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, about the similarly insane making-of Apocalypse Now, and Tropic Thunder's fake making-of doc, Rain of Madness, which stars Justin Theroux as a fake Fitzcarraldo-era Herzog. The latter is wonderfully stupid-funny, and if I recall correctly, also parodies Herzog's Grizzly Man.
That said, these other films don't have the legend that is Werner Herzog, and he's a captivating, maddening figure. He would give his life for his artistic pursuits, and seeing him talk about the madness of art is, still, quite inspiring. Would you go to his lengths?
Watch the film now for free on Hulu: