By Anthony Kaufman
[Photo: Left, Steve Zahn and Christian Bale in “Rescue Dawn”; below, Werner Herzog, MGM 2007]
Werner Herzog: True American patriot? Fans of the New German Cinema maverick may not associate the man behind “Aguirre, Wrath of God,” “Fitzcarraldo” and “Nosferatu” with tales of U.S. military heroism overseas, but “Rescue Dawn,” Herzog’s latest film, is a fitting (and undoubtedly strategically scheduled) release for this Fourth of July weekend.
Based on Herzog’s 1997 documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” which told the story of Dieter Dengler, a German-American pilot who was shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War and held captive in a prison camp, “Rescue Dawn” reimagines Dengler’s tale as a strange, survivalist adventure, replete with wondrous shots of nature and weird, mystical diversions that are best described as “Herzogian.” But it’s also, perhaps above all, a tribute to American perseverance and ingenuity. As memorably played by Christian (“Batman”) Bale, Dengler is a wide-eyed, smiling optimist who’s undeterred by torture, maggots, shackles and the unforgiving Southeast Asian jungle, and a loyal friend to the end to another captive soldier named Duane (the equally excellent Steve Zahn).
Beset by production problems, as chronicled by The New Yorker‘s Daniel Zalweski (“The Ecstatic Truth,” April 24, 2006) and delayed from release several times due to disputes with financiers, “Rescue Dawn” finally comes to U.S. theaters either as Herzog’s most accessible movie or his most confused. However it’s interpreted, the film offers yet another fascinating glimpse into the German director’s many obsessions, from man’s easy slide into madness to the forbidding turmoil that underlies our world.
Why go back and tell little Dieter’s story through a fictional film?
When we finished “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” Dieter came to me and said, “This is unfinished business,” and I knew exactly what he meant. Sometimes, in the documentary, he bypasses major things. In a very casual manner he says that there were conflicts among the prisoners about whether we should escape or not. The truth is they threatened each other almost with murder. So, of course, I knew much more than I could show in the documentary. It’s one of those stories that needs the approach of fiction, even though all the major events in “Rescue Dawn” are based on real events that happened to Dieter Dengler. But I like to have the approach of fiction, of myth.
What does fiction give you that documentary doesn’t?
What it does, as defined in literature by Hemingway or the short stories of Joseph Conrad, is the test and trial of men, something that goes beyond the sheer factual elements.
Some of your documentaries, of course, reach this level, too.
From a different angle, yes. Many of them are not real documentaries I would be careful to call them that. Let’s put “documentary” in quotes.
This return to nature makes me think of “Grizzly Man.” Nature is a powerful force in both films, but man is victorious in “Rescue Dawn” where in “Grizzly Man,” he is not.
For obvious reasons. Yes, I’m fascinated with that, because we constitute part of nature and we overlook it. And it doesn’t do good for us to be confined to huge cities and never see a real forest or know what an animal looks like or how it behaves. Simple things.
Is there anything going on in the world today on a political level that you think may resonate with Dieter’s story?
We should be cautious, because there are an abundance of films that are anti-American or at least question American’s attitude in the world. Strangely enough, this is a film that praises the real qualities of America. In Dieter Dengler, you had the best you can find in America: courage, frontier spirit, loyalty, the joy of life. He’s the quintessential immigrant. He wanted to fly and America gave him wings. As you may know, I live in America, and it’s not for no reason. I like America, even though I see there’s trouble at the moment and turmoil. But in my opinion, America always has a kind of resilience and youthfulness to overcome all these things. Everyone is desperate about the situation right now and I keep saying, “Look back 50 years ago, how America overcame the McCarthy witchhunts.” There is something I like about America, it’s dear to my heart and I’m a guest in your country. It’s not that I don’t have some ambivalent feelings, but strangely enough, the film is against the trend.
One of the main things I came away from Rescue Dawn with is Dieter’s unflagging good-spiritness. It’s almost naive.
It is. When you see Christian Bale at the beginning of the film, you have the feeling that there are these very naive American boys and they are very enthusiastic about something that may come along like this little war in Vietnam. And they’re only interested in the go-go girls in Saigon (laughs). And 40 minutes into the first mission, he’s shot down and finds himself in a situation that’s completely unexpected.
This was a difficult shoot, in terms of time, budget, money?
Yes, it was. I have to point out that every single film you will find that there was struggle here, there was struggle there, there was struggle with a star, there was struggle with money, there was struggle with torrential rains, and on and on. It is the very nature of filmmaking. I am not in the culture of content. And we have to look at what do we have here? I managed to keep the integrity of the film intact. That’s an achievement that I need to point out, even though it sounds self-flattering. But it is a fact. There’s a natural concomitant of trouble in films’ geneses, but we have a film completely intact. I am proud of the film. I wish it will find its audience.
Is there anything that you would have changed?
My only regret is that in a few moments, it should have been three seconds longer. For example, I could bite my hand when I saw it: a very strange, pivotal scene where things all of a sudden move from action, action, action, event, event, event to a more interior film. 20 or 25 minutes into the film, Dieter having been tortured and hung upside down and had an ant’s nest hung over his head, sits on a strange rock and there’s fish, which looks like specters, and the camera pans up to his face, and he says, “The quick have their sleepwalkers and so do the dead.” Two seconds, and a quick fade. But I need five seconds! But since it’s a fade out, I think you accept it as something that is lingering on. But I have never made a film that was perfect.
This line of dialogue; where did this come from? Is it a quote?
It is one of those peculiar lines that you have sometimes. Like in “Aguirre: Wrath of God,” the Spanish expedition are shot at with little blowpipe tarts. And then all of a sudden, one of the soldiers gets shot by an arrow as huge as a javelin through the chest. And he grabs the javelin, and says, “The long arrows are coming into fashion,” and drops dead on the floor. And this is a pivotal moment, where it’s very, very strange, but from this moment on, which is kind of odd, as an audience, you accept virtually everything: the Spanish ship in the treetop 120 feet high; an arrow that hits a man in his thigh and he doesn’t even flinch, and says, “We only think these are arrows because we are afraid of them.” Everything is acceptable from that moment on. And this is a similar moment: “The quick have their sleepwalkers and so the dead.” From this moment on, the story turns into something more interior. And it shifts, and you, as an audience, are prepared for the shift. It’s very mysterious how it functions. But as a storyteller, you have to understand moments like that. And audiences understand it, not in a logical, analytical, intellectual level… It’s a beautiful, mysterious thing to tell a story right.
And visually, too?
Of course, it looks almost like a medieval painting with the sleeping guards under the cross of the crucifixion.
When we first see the prisoners, they’re also posed very gracefully in tableau. It also looks like a painting.
It comes naturally to me. When you’re in the environment and you’re physically working in there, the sitting arrangements, the poses, the distribution in space comes very naturally to me. And it takes me 20 seconds to place them right. And it is right. But it only comes because of my own physical engagement in these scenes. It struck the team as something very odd that I spent nine hours in the water up to my armpits on one day. That I would not ask Christian Bale to eat maggots unless I would do it myself. So I’m always physically in there and standing in for them, because I start to understand the scenes from the inside. And then I step behind the camera and the arrangements come absolutely without aesthetic deliberations, and come very organically. And this is very odd for technical crews that have not worked with me before how much, physically, I’m into this. I do the slate, for example. I would never allow anyone else to do the slate. I want to be the last one between the actors on one side and the camera and technical on the other side. I’m the last one to pull out…
What is it about these physical environments like shooting in the jungle that you enjoy?
I think I’m better at that than filming in an artificial environment like a studio. When it cuts to the jungle, it’s almost some sort of inner landscape, as well, like a human quality. You don’t get it in the studio, and you don’t get it from films that are normally shot in the jungle. The jungle is often just a scenic backdrop, and in my case, it is something that eventually turns into some fever dream, with some human qualities, and towards the end, you get the sense that fever dreams are almost a normal occurrence.
[Spoilers follow] So the ending of the film I find somewhat confounding. Can you talk about the patriotic finale with the announcer, and the huge crowds?
What would normally happen in a mainstream studio film is you would have this shallow pathos of the hero returning, and here, of course, you have a grand event, a couple of thousand people are greeting him and are hidden in the cargo bay, all of which happened to Dieter Dengler. And he has this unbelievable reception. In the documentary, he talks about it. But what I wanted to avoid was this kind of heroic pathos, of a triumphant return like “Rocky.”
But that’s what it seems like.
That’s what’s on the surface. But he’s being asked, “What carried you through? Was it your belief in God or country?” And he can’t answer. And the disc jockey asks him, “Well, you must believe in something?” And he says, “I believe I need a steak.” And then the last lines of dialogue, the disc jockey asks him, “Can you say something to the boys to carry them through, no matter how bad it gets? Do you have a message for them?” And he says, “Yes, I do. Empty what is full; fill what is empty; scratch where it itches.” It’s much more uplifting than hollow pathos. It plays against the pathos for a heroic, triumphant return. And it has its humor. The whole story has a lot of humor. And that a man who has been through an ordeal like that has that amount of humor left that’s what interests me.
“Rescue Dawn” opens in New York and L.A. on July 4th (official site).