Films About Films – Fitzcarraldo & Burden of Dreams

The creative process can sometimes seem like moving a 320-ton ship uphill. Sometimes, you actually have to do that.

By Tim Lorge


There are some films in which the production itself was so unbelievable that they spawned a separate film documenting or dramatizing the process.

For some films, to truly understand it, you really need to know the backstory (a.k.a. horseshit) about its production.

Next up, the movie that is said to be one of the most difficult movies ever made, Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” and Les Blank’s documentary on its making, “Burden of Dreams”.

If there is a theme between last week and this, it would be: film masters who, in one way or another, have suffered for their art.

The case could be made that Welles brought his suffering upon himself, in part, because of his arrogance. Herzog’s suffering, if he considers it so, is because he wants to tell a truthful and accurate story.

1982’s “Fitzcarraldo” is about Brian Sweeney “Fitzcarraldo” Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) is a (very German looking) Irishman who wants to bring opera, specifically Enrico Caruso, to the Peruvian Amazon in the early Twentieth Century. To do that, he needs to build an opera house.

To get the large sum of money he needs to build the opera house, he decides to harvest rubber from a swath of land that is almost impossible to reach by boat due to a long section of rapids and, of course, the indigenous people who want nothing to do with outsiders.

To get to the land, he has to portage (carry – didn’t know the word before this article), well, he got the locals to portage, a 320-ton boat over a steep, 40-degree hill.

To say the least, Herzog is a stickler for authenticity.

He shot the film on location in the Amazon AND actually moved a real 320-ton riverboat up and over the hill; no special effects were used at all! He actually moved a huge riverboat up and over hill!

I should note that there was a Peruvian rubber baron by the name of Carlos Fitzcarrald from whom Herzog drew inspiration for this film. Fitzcarrald actually executed natives if they didn’t help dismantle and carry a boat over the mountain. However, according to Herzog, it was only a 30-ton vessel broken up into fourteen or fifteen parts or, 2-tons per part.

This alone would be reason to watch Fitzcarraldo. However, we have to discuss the 1983 BAFTA winner for Best Documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams”.

If Burden didn’t exist, I don’t know if Fitzcarraldo would be as legendary as it is.

We have the 320-ton boat, three of them actually, one of them has to get up the hill. We see how that was done and it is AMAZING.

Let’s go back to before the moving of the boat.

Jason Robards and Mick Jagger were originally cast as Fitzcarraldo and his assistant, respectively. They shot about forty percent of the film, Robards contracts dysentery, has to fly back to NYC and his doctor orders him not to go back – he’s out. Jagger has a Stones tour to do, so, he’s out too.

Herzog now has to recast and get more money and oh yeah, the leaders of one of the local tribes are pissed that Herzog didn’t pay them off obtain their permission so they burned down their camp and all the sets.

Now, these are some of the highlights and there are so many more problems.

On its own “Fitzcarraldo” is an amazing piece of work. However, since we are talking about thirty-three years ago, as I mentioned last week, it would help you understand the picture better if you watched “Burden of Dreams” first.

Werner Herzog is a true giant of independent film. There is really no one quite like him. His vision and dedication to authenticity, particularly as evidenced in Fitzcarraldo, is something to which more filmmakers should aspire.

I encourage you to do the same.

Incidentally, once every year or two, Herzog runs what he calls the Rogue Film School []. It is, according to Marie-Françoise Theodore’s article [] on IndieWire, quite the experience.

He is also running a filmmaking class on Masterclass [ ] later this summer. I hope to have an article for you on that after it launches.

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