Werner Herzog on “Rescue Dawn”

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By Anthony Kaufman

IFC News

[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).


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.