I’ve been familiar with East Bay filmmaker Les Blank’s work for as long as I can remember. His 1970 portrait of blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins, The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, was one of my first introductions to both the Delta blues and documentary film.
In the fascinating Burden of Dreams, Blank follows the making of German director Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, a film based on the true story of an Irish businessman’s obsession to bring opera to the jungles of South America. Part of the scheme famously involved dragging a steamship up over a mountain ridge to exploit a remote river basin.
Does Herzog film within spitting distance of anything, since all jungle looks like jungle? No. Of course not. He drags cast and crew into the middle of a border war deep in the Amazon interior. Psychologically, you can almost get behind the effect he was going for. How better to capture the mania and fruitlessness of Fitzcarraldo’s quest than to isolate everyone with Klaus Kinski in a remote clearing hacked out of the teaming wilderness?
Herzog’s obsession with realism crosses the line into mania when he insists on using a real steamship to capture the film’s centerpiece. Enlisting and endangering the native population, he disregards the onsite engineer who tells him that if he tries to drag the ship over the slick mountain track using only block and tackle and a single bulldozer, someone was going to get killed.
Fitzcarraldo eventually becomes Herzog’s Apocalypse Now, pushing the director beyond the normal boundaries of humanity, and ultimately, sanity. Like Francis Ford Coppola, who began to empathize with his protagonist’s Conradian voyage upriver, Herzog seems to be becoming Fitzcarraldo as he risks everything to bring his fever dream to fruition.
Two decades later, Herzog ruminated on the misguided obsession that lead to the death of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend at the tragic end of his 2005 film Grizzly Man. “And what haunts me,” he narrates, “is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” Blank has shown us that if there are two things Herzog knows about they are obsession and the fact that nature doesn’t give a damn about your obsession.