Not rated. Okay, this one should be R. It's a documentary, which automatically ramps any example of blood to R-level. There's some blood. I'm not saying that there is a wealth of blood, but someone really bleeds in this movie. Also, there's a fair amount of sharing, mostly from Klaus Kinski, which makes it sound even more intense than a regular f-bomb. Finally, and this is what this analysis is going to focus on, this is fundamentally a movie about exploitation without ever really addressing that exploitation. This should be a hard movie to watch at times. Not Rated.
DIRECTOR: Les Blank
See, now I'm all conflicted. Since I feel the need to pad out my reviews with an explanation of why I watched this movie, I should probably get this out of the way first. My buddy Dan gave me a copy of this a million years ago for my birthday. He knows my irrational obsession with collecting as many Criterion DVDs as possible. (It gives my tastes relevancy.) He got me this used copy of Burden of Dreams without the box and told me to watch it. The friend in me graciously thanked him, but the snob in me immediately followed it up by saying, "You know I want the fancy box for my shelf, right?" I'm a bad person. The good news is that I didn't buy Burden of Dreams for the pretty box. The bad news is that I have since gotten married and had kids and I had yet to watch Burden of Dreams because it didn't have a fancy box. Yup. I'm a monster.
But really, it's Werner Herzog who is the monster. (You see that seemless segue?) I have always liked Herzog, both his films and the man himself. He's the weirdest guy ever. If you want a good time right now and you know who Werner Herzog is, YouTube "Werner Herzog's Ant-Man". It's perfect. The guy is just super weird and I kind of love it. His movies are weirdly watchable and pretentious too, so he gives me all kinds of film street cred. (I'm accidentally doing a week of Criterion releases as a subconscious response to binging the entire MCU. I'm very snobby and I want this page to have a degree of validity.) I also have always had the idea that the creation of art involves sacrifice and that an artist must do anything to express his art. Burden of Dreams kind of undoes all of that. Now, I'm writing about 1982's Burden of Dreams in 2018. We've all become much more woke. We're not better people; we're just more vocal and obsessed with appearing to be the most moral. But I'd like to think that I've kind of evolved over time. Werner Herzog went too far. I knew the basic premise of this movie. Someone had summarized it for me and I knew what this documentary was about. This movie, like Hearts of Darkness, is a video documentary about the making of a movie. In the case of Burden of Dreams, it follows Herzog's epic journey to make Fitzcarraldo, a very good movie in its own right. I liked Fitzcarraldo a lot and, when I told someone that I owned Burden of Dreams, they revealed that a lot of this movie focuses on getting the boat over the mountain. If I'm speaking jibberish to you, don't worry. I'll explain.
Fitzcarraldo surrounds this maniac who wants to push a 30-ton / 300-ton ship over a mountain. It is the story of how obsession and selfishness gets the better of this man, leading to his ultimately tragic end. I say "30-ton" because in reality (this is a true story), the original boat was 30 tons. The one in the movie weighted 300 tons. Now, this is where the world gets stupid and I now question my love for Werner Herzog. Herzog, in the making of a movie about selfish obsession, eclipses the true story and one ups the real Fitzgerald / Fitzcarraldo. When I watched Fitzcarraldo, I simply assumed that the boat was a special effect. Don't get me wrong. The scene looks great. But this is a scene that is very capably done with practical effects. This is 1982. Special effects were already looking awesome since 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick himself was an obsessive personality. Herzog, in his attempt to make this movie, ruined lives and led to the death of a native over the course of the movie. Now, I understand that sometimes things happen on set. Stuntmen have lost their lives in the past. But these were controlled environments. These were honest mistakes that happened, despite a team of people trying their best to ensure the safety of everyone on set. Fitzcarraldo is a master class on how selfish filmmaking is done. There are so many moments that I'm going to talk about right now. SPOILERS because I need to talk about them really badly. None of the hard to shoot stuff had to happen the way it did. I know Herzog's logic while making this movie. It is a movie, in his mind, about authenticity. But his authenticity comes at a price that was not his own. It would have been very reasonable to shoot this boat going over the mountain if he really wanted to do it. If he was shooting for authenticity, there would have been a place where it would have worked. But to Herzog, that part of the jungle didn't look cinematic enough. Instead, he moved heaven and earth to get the boat to a spot that would have looked better, but nearly impossible to move. That's where it bums me out.
Herzog is all about being authentic. He gets this intense boat and wants to do it right. But he ignores that authenticity for the sake of the artificiality. The real Fitzcarraldo moved the ship over the mountain (and this was considered dangerous as well) in pieces to make it more reasonable. Herzog didn't. He thought it looked cooler as one piece. The real ship was 30 tons. The new ship was 300. The very notion that he is picking a place that looks more cinematic is testament to his love of the artificial. He couldn't get shots because he wanted a lot of it in the magic hour. I love when filmmakers are that attentive to their craft. That's awesome. But he's not paying for his craft with his own sacrifices. Instead, he is exploiting the native culture and that's kind of sick. The movie stresses all of the trials that the native population goes through, but it almost does so in a way that admires Herzog for doing it. These people are kept away from their families for months. A guy nearly dies on camera. I honestly thought he was dead. Everyone warned Herzog that someone was going to die doing this. But Herzog never endangers himself. It almost feels like he sees these native dwellers, whom he vocally admires / I question that, as less than he is. He isn't risking being flattened by a 300 ton boat. He hires a prostitute for these people to deal with their sexual needs. When the bulldozer breaks, he flies out parts from Miami but doesn't get them another soccer ball? There's health issues all over this film that don't really need to happen. This should have been filmed in a studio. It would have looked great. I know. It's not authentic, but only Herzog would have known that and he's already not being authentic with his choices in filming. He's just showing the world that he can do this. I don't think I've ever seen such a screaming example of privilege than this movie. These aren't stuntmen who know the risk. These are people who are earning slave wages that are only considered fair because it is double what they normally make. It's kind of sick.
I don't know if I can enjoy Fitzcarraldo again. I'll rewatch it someday. It's just that I don't know when art goes too far. The movie itself is compelling. I'm going to be a huge hypocrite because I might have the ability to separate my morality from what I'm watching. The movie almost stresses that Herzog is a man of constant endurance. Fitzcarraldo is this movie that seems doomed from the beginning. It's weird to think that Mick Jagger was in this movie originally. Everything that could have gone wrong with this film actually went wrong. I'm looking forward to seeing The Man Who Killed Don Quixote for the exact same reason; it is the tale of a movie that was constantly being plagued with troubles and problems. But Herzog kept on pushing. Now, I'm writing this from an ergonomic chair on a keyboard that I rather like. I have a giant tumbler of water in front of me and I choose not to turn on the air condition because I have a nice breeze going. Herzog is doing all of this from the remotest jungle. He is speaking at least three languages in this film and is waist deep in muck and sleeping in filth. Klaus Kinski is a nice juxtaposition to Herzog because Kinski is reacting the way I would to a lot of this stuff. But Herzog is just having another day at the office. I have to believe that Herzog probably had a few meltdowns during the filming of this movie. So much stuff is going badly that he would have had to have lost it at one point. But he keeps pushing. But this comes back to the original question. Is Herzog wrong for making Fitzcarraldo? I have to say "Yes, he is." He is exploiting the culture. He had alternatives and suggestions and he doesn't collaborate whatsoever. If I had to look at one of the seven deadly sins, Herzog epitomizes pride. He doesn't change his plans because his pride would be wounded. He sees changes in filming techniques as a sign of failure. Again, I can't stress this enough, I had no idea that the boat sequences wasn't filmed as a special effect in a studio. That means that all of this stuff was for nothing. If it meant something to future generations, I still couldn't justify that Herzog was willing to sacrifice anyone for his own personal gratification.
I'm glad I saw this. I know it doesn't sound like it. I guess I'm also glad to have seen Jim & Andy. Both are tales about artistic obsession and how it should be glorified. But I also know more about these people and what it really means to put art in front of everything else. Art needs sacrifice, but it should be one's own sacrifice. Either way, it was fascinating and eye-opening.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.