Les Blank’s ‘Burden of Dreams’ Sees Werner Herzog Try to Push a 320-Ton Ship Up a Hill in the Jungle

On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age. 

First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing. 

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Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.

The Pitch: Can Documentaries Make for Great Midnight Movies?

American documentaries are facing headwinds in awards. It’s not my area of expertise. But Anne Thompson’s predictions for the Best Documentary Feature race ahead of the 96th Oscars on Sunday explain the situation well.

“With the international membership now representing more than 20 percent of the total voters, this year all five documentary nominees were international,” Thompson wrote, tying the trend to numerous non-fiction films left without distributors at Sundance.

“As the top American film festival for docs, Sundance usually supplies as many as four out of the final five Oscar nominees each year.”

You’d be hard-pressed to make the argument that any Oscars category is too internationally diverse, and regardless of who wins, the five nominees (“20 Days in Mariupol,” “Bobi Wine: The People’s President,” “Four Daughters,” “The Eternal Memory,” and “To Kill a Tiger“) are part of an increasingly visible global film community at the Academy and that’s exciting.

Still, as an American journalist pondering the Very Greatness of the Movies Themselves on this Oscars Weekend Eve, I’m compelled to recommend something radical. Instead of watching some Hungarian arthouse horror or acid-inspired ‘70s cartoon, cue up Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams” as your next midnight movie and this week’s IndieWire After Dark pick.

It doesn’t particularly matter that Blank was American, but the late documentarian’s hidden treasure title from 1982 — a making-of film about the near-disastrous production of Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” — seems a fitting tribute to those non-fiction works forever lost on the path to distribution let alone the Oscars.

The companion documentary to the German filmmaker’s epic adventure movie, starring Klaus Kinski as the title character, “Fitzcarraldo” is appreciated by enough cinephiles. But few would call it a cult classic. That’s despite its effervescent portrait of filmmaking at its most extreme, and consideration of myriad existential questions still facing the entertainment industry. Think the cost of directorial brilliance, the lecherousness of white western culture, the impact of Hollywood’s under-documented environmental destruction, and the breaking point between an artist’s dream and someone else’s nightmare.

BURDEN OF DREAMS, documentary subject Werner Herzog while filming FITZCARRALDO, 1982
Werner Herzog in ‘Burden of Dreams’ (1982)Courtesy Everett Collection

“Fitzcarraldo” tells the story of a man with the outrageous dream of opening an opera house in the thick of the Amazon basin in the Peruvian jungle. The Sisyphus-like tale about Fitzcarraldo’s efforts closely mirrors the events depicted in “Burden of Dreams,” Herzog and his crew tackle an audacious task. It’s a task so outlandish only one of cinema’s most infamous auteurs could demand it. Yes, that headline you read up there (^) was serious: Herzog really tried to move a 320-ton steamship up and over a mountain.

“No one knows how long it’s going to take to pull a real steam ship over a hill in the jungle, which is why Herzog needs three ships,” the narrator says with an almost laughable calmness.  “While one of the ships stays in Iquitos and another goes over the hill, Herzog can keep shooting with the third ship.”

Constructing a makeshift railway and endangering hundreds of indigenous workers, the production for “Fitzcarraldo” is significantly more interesting to me than the film itself. (Although, it’s worth noting Herzog did win the Palme d’Or for the effort.) Financial difficulties, cultural tensions, and the volatile relationship between Kinski and Herzog are among the many dramas explored in “Burden of Dreams.”

It’s an against-the-grain genre recommendation that might not meet the demands of a true-blue midnight movie for all viewers; Blank is not experimental with his direction nor is anything in the film particularly avantgarde. And yet, Herzog’s singular vision and Blank’s brilliant capturing of that obsession seem especially worthy of consideration from the adventure film lovers who stay up late. —AF

The Aftermath: If You Build It, They Will (Force You to Disassemble It and Move It and Then Constantly Try to Stop You and Then) Come

“Burden of Dreams” is overflowing with quotable lines about the romance of giving everything you have to the art of filmmaking. It’s the kind of movie that’s catnip for film students pushing their own Sisyphean ambitions up the proverbial hill and seasoned cinephiles taking time to appreciate the insurmountable challenges that their heroes faced to make their favorite movies. While you could single out any number of lines as bulletin board inspiration for an aspiring filmmaker, I was predictably struck by one of Herzog’s quotes.

“If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams,” he says early in the film. “And I don’t want to live like that.”

There’s room to debate whether this movie is better classified as a midnight movie or a Sunday afternoon film history lesson, but there’s no denying that Herzog’s punk rock attitude perfectly embodies the IndieWire After Dark ethos. This column has tracked how midnight movie culture has evolved from ritual-laden screenings of “Rocky Horror” and “The Room” to a streaming-era subculture that can be enjoyed at any time of day. But the one thread that connects the entire history of this counterculture is the idea that dreams are worth having. Dreams of seeing images that you can’t find at your standard multiplex. Dreams of following bold creative visions to their logical endpoints without concerns about its financial viability. Dreams that if you make something weird and creative and cool, somebody will find it and appreciate it — even if they have to wait until 12:01am on Saturday to do so.

In a world dominated by streaming and other market forces that often seem hostile to filmmakers who value creative independence and the theatrical experience, getting a groundbreaking movie made and seen can be a challenge on par with moving a boat up a hill. Other than Eleanor Coppola’s “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” I can’t think of many documentaries that do a better job of capturing the insanity that goes into the process of making the art we love so much.

Sometimes the only thing more deranged than watching a monkey sex movie or a twisted slasher flick is thinking about the real derangement that’s required to get these things over the finish line. For that reason alone, any movie buff should be proud to take in a midnight screening of “Burden of Dreams.” —CZ

Those brave enough to join in on the fun can stream “Burden of Dreams” on The Criterion Channel and rent it on Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV. IndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59 p.m. ET every Friday. Read more of our deranged suggestions…

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