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Burden of Dreams: The Criterion Collection

Werner Herzog described the story of his 1982 film Fitzcarraldo as "Sisyphus-like" — the tale of a crazed genius, a "culture baron" who, having failed in his attempt to build an enormous opera house in the Amazon jungle, decided to bring commerce to the jungle instead. To that end, he enlisted hundreds of native Indians to move an enormous boat from one tributary to another by hauling it over a mountain. Les Blank's documentary on the making of Herzog's film, Burden of Dreams (1982), is a fascinating companion to Fitzcarraldo detailing the filmmaker's obsessive drive to make his movie about an equally obsessive man. After setting up a camp for cast and crew in the rainforest near the Ecuadorian border, Herzog spent nearly five years on the film, shooting in a jungle that was the site of border wars, displacement of native Indians by government-sponsored settlers, and encroaching lumber and oil interests. Pre-production gets off to a rocky start as political interests among the Indians argue whether the locals should take the well-paying work offered by the film crew, going so far as to make death threats against the film company and spreading rumors in the press that Herzog's people were smuggling arms and destroying the land. Then, five weeks into filming, star Jason Robards comes down with amoebic dysentery and has to fly home — and secondary actor Mick Jagger, who had committed to a concert tour, drops out because he can't stay on board while Herzog finds another leading man. Herzog turns to the mercurial Klaus Kinski, with whom he'd made three previous films, an actor perfect for the role but whom Herzog (rightfully) feared would go mad when stuck in the jungle for months. Facing skeptical investors who want to know how he can continue under these circumstances, Herzog answers them with a sentiment worthy of his film's subject: "If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams." At times, cast and crew wonder if Herzog is insane — he moves the production 1,500 miles south, a trip that takes two weeks by river, even though he admits he could shoot almost everything at the existing site. The highlight of Blank's film, as with Herzog's, is the awe-inspiring sight of hundreds of Indian natives hauling a 320-ton steamship over a mountain. Having cleared a path between two rivers, Herzog shot what he called "the central metaphor of my film" — pulling the enormous boat up an impossibly steep hill — despite argument from his engineer (who feared people could die should the cables break during shooting), cast members threatening to walk off the film, and investors who would rather leave the director stranded in the jungle with a 300-ton boat than continue sinking money into what looked like a doomed project. Burden of Dreams is a multi-textured work, offering not just an intimate look at a driven director's hands-on work under staggering circumstances, but also a fascinating exploration of the lives of those who live in the remote regions of the Amazon — it's simply one of the very best "making-of" features ever produced, a stunning behind-the-scenes look at the production of a brilliant motion picture.

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The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Burden of Dreams is, as always, excellent — a very good transfer, given the inconsistent nature of the source print, in full-screen (1.33:1), maintaining the original aspect ratio, while the Dolby 2.0 audio is very clean and clear. On board is a commentary track with Blank and editor/sound recordist Maureen Gosling, cut together with a track recorded separately by Herzog. If you've heard Herzog's commentary on the DVD for Fitzcarraldo, it ought not to be a surprise that they didn't all yack it up together like old pals — Herzog has blamed Blank's film for making him look like a madman, although in truth Herzog does a fine job of making that case all by himself. At any rate, where Burden of Dreams does an impressive job of supplementing Fitzcarraldo, the commentary track here does an impressive job of fleshing out the details of the documentary even further — making it a sort of meta-commentary on Fitzcarraldo and all the more compelling for it. Also on board are "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe" (20 min.), shot by Blank, in which Herzog fulfills a bet made with a young Errol Morris in which he told him that he'd eat said shoe if Morris ever made a feature film — Morris made Gates of Heaven and the result was this cute short; "Dreams and Burdens" (38 min.), a new interview with Herzog looking back at both his film and Blank's; two deleted scenes that Blank allowed Herzog to use in My Best Fiend, Herzog's remembrance of Klaus Kinski (one showing Kinski screaming wildly at the film's production manager about the lousy meal he's offered, and another, gentler moment with the actor and a butterfly). There's also the theatrical trailer, a stills gallery, and an enclosed booklet with Blank's and Gosling's diaries from during the shooting of the film. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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