Early Millennials like myself will probably remember way back in the ‘90s, when “IMAX” meant something much different than it does today. Namely, it meant trekking way the hell out to your local planetarium or natural history museum to behold a massively-sized 20-minute National Geographic documentary about—I dunno—glaciers, or bison, or the migration of Canadian geese, or whatever.
I specifically remember seeing one of these IMAX docs, about a bunch of bearded British dudes climbing Mt. Everest. Afterwards, as my dad debriefed me about the film over hot dogs and Pepsi at the planetarium café, the old man said something like, “You know, the real story isn’t the mountain climbers. It’s the film crew. Those guys were climbing Mt. Everest and making an IMAX movie.”
I then [precociously, adorably] speculated that maybe, had there been a second documentary crew filming the exploits of the primary documentary crew, that perhaps this new endeavor would be even more impressive still. “No,” said my rude father, flatly. “Those guys would still just be making a movie.” Bastard.
Regardless, I held this early parental trauma close in my mind this week, as I settled into the ol’ Papasan’s burgundy butt-divot to revisit—at Cinessential majordomo Aaron Pinkston’s profane, bullying instance—Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and its Les Blank directed making-of doc, Burden of Dreams.
For years my go-to stance on these two films [which I both like a lot] has been that Burden of Dreams is actually a far better cinematic execution of Fitzcarraldo’s plot and central themes that Fitzcarraldo itself. That’s what I was planning on arguing in this article, anyways. But upon re-watching both films, I’m not sure I believe that any more. The Herzog film seemed much better than I remembered, more moving and aesthetically beautiful. The first third is a disjointed mess—but man oh man, that final third. It’s everything you want and more. So my “Burden better” thesis went straight out the porthole into the churning rapids.
So, going back to my Everest-IMAX analogy, how do we apply it to Burden of Dreams? Truth is, it starts to break down pretty quickly. Herzog’s team would be the initial group of on-camera mountain climbers, while Blank’s would be the mountain-climbers-who-are-also-making-a-movie. But Herzog is making a movie too—a big one, in fact, literally moving mountains and enduring years of turgid setbacks, frustration, and bodily peril, all to tell the story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald’s similarly quixotic rubber baron fantasies.
The 1:1 parallels between Fitzcarraldo’s fictionalized plot and Burden’s stark reality hardly requires comment. Herzog is Fitzcarraldo. The Teutonic auteur’s desire to get his movie made is the equivalent of his creation’s desire to bring fine opera to Iquitos. Makes sense. But in other areas there’s literally no metaphor. Herzog lifting a steamboat up and over the top of a treacherous, mud-slick mountain isn’t just like what Kinski’s Fitzcarraldo is doing—it is what he’s doing, done in exactly the same way, to largely the same results.
What’s more, Fitzcarraldo’s exploitation of Peru’s natives is—without qualification—Herzog’s own. This leads to an astonishing moment of dirty-pool editing on Blank’s part: after a long section stressing the mortal danger the director is putting his Amazonian worker-bees in by making them haul a big-ass boat up a 40-degree clay slip-n-slide, we cut to a frightful, stomach-churning shot of one such worker-bee, crushed under the errant iron behemoth. Covered in blood. Dead. Oh god, we think. What has Herzog done?
But then Herzog calls “Cut!” and helps the man to his feet. The surrounding film crew cheers. Lazarus asks if he can wash himself off, and Herzog permits him the courtesy. It’s at this moment that the line between the realities captured in Blank’s film—Fitzcarraldo’s, and Herzog’s—is at its thinnest/most porous. Surely Herzog breathed a sigh of relief: “There, but by grace of our terrifying German God, go I…” In this moment, Herzog must know that he is Fitzcarraldo. By building a shrine to his own [mostly fictitious] creation in the shape of a movie, he’s necessarily also building a monument to himself. Happily, Herzog’s venture is ultimately more successful, but just barely—and at tremendous cost.
The biggest difference between the two films is that Burden of Dreams is a comedy. Seriously—there’s a lot to laugh at. It’s practically a Netflix mockumentary starring Will Farrell as an idiosyncratic, self-serious European artiste who doesn’t realize he’s actually making a movie about himself. But the real Herzog does know. That’s why he’s making the movie in the first place. And why he makes it so hard on himself.