Risking It All on a Film about a Madman Risking It All on a Film

The Two-Headed Enigma of Fitzcarraldo and Burden of Dreams, and the Morphing Process of Documentaries

Looking at Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982) today, you see an old-school paradigm at work. This is documentary-as-lifestyle filmmaking, in which the film begins without an agenda, and evolves organically, gradually, as a result of the merging of, or collision between, the filmmaker’s personality and the real world. It is not shake-&-bake doc-making, and it is not “instant history,” and it is not an archive-footage mashup concocted on a laptop. As outrageous as the movie is in the end, there’s a lesson we could take away from it, about how the process of documentary filmmaking ideally depends upon human duress and time and relationships, and how the real world must be allowed to help shape the work.

We’re talking about two filmmakers with a special relationship with reality and happenstance. Burden’s director, Les Blank, was a non-fiction filmmaker the way a dog is a dog — it wasn’t just what he did but who he was. Probably the premier surveyor of the all-American fringe land — which is to say, most of America, in distinct and eccentric slices — Blank had a career that ran for over a half a century, making rough, handmade, naturally messy documentaries of all lengths, about whatever or whomever he found to be interesting: regional music, ethnic cooking, outsider art, gap-toothed women, or, in this case, the wiles and whims of another filmmaker, as the man dares to do the impossible.

Most of all, Blank adapted to whatever was in front of him, and his films (boxed together by Criterion a few years ago) never impose an agenda or idea, but rather roll with the human weather. The other filmmaker, the subject of Burden of Dreams, also worshipped at the altar of Who Knows What’ll Happen: Werner Herzog, the New German Cinema titan famous for gambling everything on fate, stranding his cast and crew in the Amazon (1972’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God), hypnotizing his entire cast (1976’s Heart of Glass), casting an institutionalized schizophrenic as his lead actor (both 1974’s Kasper Hauser and 1977’s Stroszek), venturing to an evacuated volcanic island to interview the one man who won’t leave (1977’s La Soufriere), and so on. Whether about his fiction films or his raft of documentaries, Herzog stories are thick on the ground, and they all round up into a single principle: moviemaking isn’t about control, but abandonment, exploring the Real and coming back with something that cannot be faked or contrived.

Herzog’s career-peak in this regard might have been Fitzcarraldo (1982), in which he tells the story of a turn-of-the-century Irish impresario who, in order to access a secluded jungle territory, and bring opera to the Amazon, has natives push a steamship over a mountain, from one river to another. It’s a true story — except in real life, the ship only weighed 30 tons, and was disassembled and reassembled in the process. Because Herzog is Herzog, the film’s ship is 300 tons, and is hauled over the mountain in one piece, using only turn-of-the-century tools. For Herzog, the real-world spectacle of performing the impossible in the wildest place on Earth wasn’t merely a means to an end; it was the entire reason to make a film. Special effects of any kind were not even considered. No wonder Blank, who was as easily beguiled by a Cajun crawfish bake as the folly of man, went to Peru to document Herzog’s doom-beckoning debacle.

The men knew each other: in 1979, Blank was there in Berkeley when Herzog flew in and visited Alice Waters’s restaurant Chez Panisse, in order to cook a pair of workboots. He’d wagered to ’70s film student Errol Morris than he’d eat his shoe if Morris ever finished a feature, and so eventually Morris did (1979’s Gates of Heaven). After five hours of braising in stock, Herzog’s shoe was ready, and in front of a UC audience, fielded questions while ingesting the garlic-infused leather. (Not the sole; as Herzog explains, you don’t eat the bones with the chicken.) Blank’s short film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), hasn’t been out of circulation since.

Naturally, Blank followed Herzog to South America, and the good news for Blank was that Fitzcarraldo had a spectacularly troubled production, between crew injuries, plane crashes, cast changes (Jason Robards and Mick Jagger were going to star until Robards got dysentery), the incendiary and possibly psychotic presence of Klaus Kinski as the new lead, the semi-permanent state of war of the local Indian tribes (stray arrow wounds were common), a tension-heightening border dispute between Peru and Ecuador, drought, malaria, murder threats, and, let’s face it, the circumstances produced by Herzog’s outrageous production scenario, which terrified the locals and injured untold workers.

Throughout it all, Herzog stands like a thin tree in a hurricane, pushing forward long after an ordinary film production would’ve shut down, and defying astronomical odds and huge social forces and nature itself. The ordeal would take almost four years, and Blank crafts it into a resoundingly Herzogian epic that’s not unlike Fitzcarraldo itself — in fact, the two films are two sides of a diptych, both portraying two slightly insane megalomaniacal men determined to bulldoze into the precivilized wilderness and push a giant ship over a mountain for reasons that, even to them, remain unclear.

Which is the mysterious beauty and metaphorical grandeur of both films in a nutshell; there’s something essential and maddeningly human at the heart of the imagery both Herzog and Blank capture — that ship — a giant, ridiculous, disastrous symbol of human folly and the grotesque triumph of mankind’s will over nature. Still, Blank’s film is a distinctive version of events, and very textually different than the film Herzog himself might’ve actually cooked up in its place. For Herzog, the documentary had “nothing to do with the shooting of this strange movie,” as he was quoted in 2013 when Blank died at 78. “It was a justifiable perspective. For Les what the native Indians were cooking was much more important than what we were doing. He created his own little universe. If Burden of Dreams had just been the making of Fitzcarraldo then it would have been lousy. He had the talent to spot the significant moments.”

Both Herzog and Blank had a respect for experiential authenticity that escapes many filmmakers today, even documentarians — the degree to which they both allowed nature and fate to dictate the shape of their films. Both men knew that there’s no substitute for the carbon scorch of reality — and the only way to capture it is to show up, hunker down, don’t rush, make friends, and keep your eyes open. It may take months, or years. It probably won’t be convenient, or easy. This was how documentaries were made in the explosive Direct Cinema era following WWII, epitomized by Frederick Wiseman, Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and the Maysles brothers, and watching their films, you can feel the earned gravity and genuineness in every frame.

Today we’re living in another kind of documentary boom, but one digitally fueled by easy footage capture and retrieval, massive archival opportunities, and ubiquitous talking-head interviews. Documentaries shouldn’t be a breeze to make — like wine, they need time and labor and patience. (When a successful doc-maker like Alex Gibney makes two or three feature docs every year, you know the paradigm has shifted.) As terrific as the new documentaries can be, where are the new Herzog and Blank, the filmmakers who believe the film can be what happens, not only what you make happen?


Smashcut students are assigned weekly feature films that illustrate and exemplify filmmaking concepts linked to that week’s lesson. This week, students are learning about “Vision and Sensibility, “Design and Color,” and “Documentaries,” and watching Vertigo and Burden of Dreams.


Smashcut is an online film school featuring live one-on-one mentoring with working industry filmmakers and exclusive video lessons created by film educators and industry professionals. Smashcut is dedicated to increasing access to an affordable, high quality film education, and supporting a broad population of emerging film students. Learn more at www.smashcut.com.

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