Fitzcarraldo (1982) & Burden of Dreams (1982)

3:19 PM

Is there anything more fascinating to a movie fan than an entire film dedicated to the magic of filmmaking? I don't think so. The number of times I've devoured Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse is comparable to if not surmounting that of my viewings of its actual subject, Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam war film, Apocalypse Now. Likewise, I've come to find myself less enthralled with Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo and absolutely head over heels for its making-of documentary, Burden of DreamsFitzcarraldo is similar to Herzog's heat-crazed 1972 Aguirre, both being set in treacherous jungle terrain, both being funded by the dollars of the doubtful, and both being fuelled by the dreams of a mad man. At one moment in Burden of Dreams, Herzog faces the camera, sweat glistening on his brow, his eyes almost pleading, "If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams. And I don't want to live like that. I live and die with this project." 

Fitzcarraldo opens on the misty mountains of a Peruvian landscape, a place we'll come to know as Iquitos, "the land where God did not finish creation." Fitzcarraldo, an Irish man played by Werner Herzog's 5-time collaborator and "best fiend" Klaus Kinski, races onto the scene of an opera performance, but he is too late. His lady friend Molly (Claudia Cardinale) begs the doorman "he has a right!". Even with no ticket and with bleeding, cracked hands that have rowed the pair for two days and miles upon miles, the determination set in those frenzied Kinski peepers is heartening. Fitzcarraldo already has a   failed railway system project behind him yet he looks to his next big dream: building an opera house in the tiny, unrefined Iquitos, an opera house fit for the talents of Fitzcarraldo's hero, the kingly Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. Fitzcarraldo hopes to fuel his dream with a interim money-maker of the get-rich-quick variety, a plan which proves to the opposite of quick. The bulk of the film follows Fitzcarraldo as he makes his way to an untapped rubber tree area of the Amazon River Basin aboard a steamer named the Molly Aida. The kicker? Fitz's mad heat dreams have conjured a plan inconceivable of the sane. In order to dodge the fatal rapids that lead the crew to the untapped rubber paradise, the Molly Aida navigates the neighbouring estuary. The plan is to then drag the 320-ton steamer across the few hundred metres of 40° muddy slopes between the estuary where the Molly Aida safely floats, and the potential opera-house fund hidden within the trunks of the treasured rubber trees. 

Werner Herzog on the set of Fitzcarraldo (1982)
The incredible perseverance of one man to do the impossible is not limited to the character of Fitzcarraldo. Werner Herzog himself, the man burdened with dreams, didn't create any false illusions of the steamer resisting the slick muddy inclines over a period of months and  there are no miniatures or deceitful tricks involved. In the early 1980s, in the dense heat of a Peruvian jungle, a 320-ton steamer was indeed pulled over a 40° slope with Kinski parroting the absurd commands of the real leader of the insane expedition, Werner Herzog. Fitzcarraldo declares in the film that "it's only the dreamers who move mountains", words  of course crafted by the director. I can't help but associate these words now with the  deliberate, German-accented words of its creator. Fitzcarraldo is an incredible feat of filmmaking, but the sheer phenomenon of its accomplishment would perhaps be lost without its documentary counterpart. It's a privilege to witness the literal blood, sweat and tears sacrificed to the sanctity of the work. If only every film were so lucky to share its machinery. 

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