Werner Herzog and the burden of dreams


This weekend, the Australian Cinémathèque’s program ‘The Wrath and Reveries of Werner Herzog’ returns with a celebration of one of Herzog’s most monumental cinematic achievements. On Friday night 30 June, the filmmaker’s masterpiece Fitzcarraldo 1982 will screen at 6.00pm from an archival 35mm print shipped in from Berlin. Then, on Saturday 1 July at 2.45pm, the classic making-of documentary Burden of Dreams 1982 reveals the almighty struggles that went into making the film.

Fitzcarraldo follows Brian Sweeney ‘Fitzcarraldo’ Fitzgerald (a prodigious Klaus Kinski) as he decides to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle. However, he must first drag a 320-ton ship over a Peruvian mountain to access the lucrative rubber trees needed to fund it. This mission proves to be an undertaking of incredible scope, requiring an incredible drive to succeed at any cost.

Production still from Fitzcarraldo 1982 / Director: Werner Herzog / Image courtesy: Werner Herzog Film GmbH

Herzog famously refused to fake this endeavour with props and replicas; instead he and his crew actually hauled a full steamship over a mountain in the heart of the South American jungle. This was no mere gimmick but instead a means of conjuring a truly potent sense of adversity and triumph that emanates from every frame of the film. Fitzcarraldo is an audacious epic of a scale that few filmmakers could hope to achieve. In matching his lead character’s obsessive quest on screen with his own behind the camera, Herzog has produced a titanic piece of cinema both startling and rousing in equal measure.

Burden of Dreams opens up the incredible tale of the production to audiences with some of the most amazing behind-the-scenes footage ever filmed. The documentary was shot by Herzog’s friend and fellow filmmaker Les Blank, whose inquisitive camera captures the gruelling work that went into Fitzcarraldo‘s creation: from a wildly unpredictable lead actor in Klaus Kinski, to the hundreds of extras, and the hauling of the 320-ton ship over a mountain. It not only expands the mystique of the feature film it covers, but itself remains in many ways just as grand of an artistic achievement. Burden of Dreams will screen with Les Blank’s short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe 1980, which is as literal and accurate a title as any film has ever had.

Production still from Burden of Dreams 1982 / Director: Les Blank / Image courtesy: Les Blank Films

Robert Hughes is Curatorial Assistant, Australian Cinémathèque
Feature image: Production still from Fitzcarraldo 1982 / Director: Werner Herzog / Image courtesy: Werner Herzog Film GmbH