In Features, Issues

With Rescue Dawn director Werner Herzog returns to the jungle to adapt one of his most powerful documentaries, Little Dieter Needs to Fly.



Imagine Werner Herzog’s skull is a movie theater. Please make yourself comfortable. Tonight’s screening will be a double feature. The first film is a nature documentary, revealing exotic plants, monkeys, snakes, dark rivers and deafening waterfalls.

The second half of this evening’s entertainment will be a snuff film. Don’t worry; the human sacrifice is only a lunatic, a madman dreamer, and besides, he secretly wants to die — it’s tattooed on his brain.

This dichotomy is perhaps the essence of the mythology surrounding Mr. Herzog’s colossal imagination.

Our hero, Herzog — pioneer of New German cinema, caretaker of crazy — is an incredibly polite man. A raconteur with few peers. With his camera in hand, he goes to volcanoes, he goes to Antarctica. He gets shot in the gut — during an interview with the BBC. He is a hypnotist, a lion tamer of natives — and Klaus Kinski.

Herzog knows that death resembles a bear.

Near the end of Les Blank’s enjoyable and otherwise whimsical short documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (based on a promise that Herzog made to a then-unknown filmmaker named Errol Morris, that if the first-timer completed a film, Herzog would consume his own footwear; Morris’s response was to make Gates of Heaven), Herzog implores the viewer:

“Give us adequate images. Our civilization doesn’t have adequate images.”

Soon after that interview, Herzog would march into the jungle of South America to film Fitzcarraldo, and — amid an actual border war — follow a doomed steamship, the Molly Aida, down a river, then proceed to transport her over a mountain.

Herzog is a man who keeps his promises.

In Dieter Dengler, Herzog encountered a man who, like himself, had left Germany for the West, possessed a restless heart, settled in California and had not just the gift of a jaw-dropping personal story (in 1966 Dengler was shot down over Laos during his first combat mission, suffered imprisonment, torture and starvation by both the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese and then managed a Hollywood-heroic escape) but, even more important, knew how to articulate himself.

Herzog’s documentary film Little Dieter Needs to Fly is Dengler’s story.

Herzog’s new dramatic feature Rescue Dawn is also Dengler’s story. They are both, in a way, Werner Herzog’s story as well.

Herzog leaps freely from documentary to fiction because he sees little distinction between the two forms. His most famous fiction films — Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo — possess a tension born from the intersection of handheld realism and lyrical dream-logic, while his documentaries (Grizzly Man, Little Dieter) unapologetically choose to fictionalize and reinterpret events, or offer Herzog’s deeply biased, bleak (and occasionally hilarious) narration.

Reexamining the life of Dieter Dengler in scripted form is a logical step for a filmmaker who’s never been particularly interested in mere reportage and, in his tongue-in-cheek Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema (1999), declared that cinema vérité is “a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.” Vérité filmmakers “resemble tourists who take pictures amid ancient ruins of facts,” he wrote. Also: “Ecstatic truth... can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”

In Rescue Dawn, Christian Bale stands as a surrogate for Dieter Dengler, and while their accents are noticeably different, Bale embodies the magnetic, seemingly inexplicable optimism of the prisoner of war. Surrounded by other POWs — including a suitably creepy, parasitic Jeremy Davies and a moving, deeply sympathetic Steve Zahn — Bale’s Dengler, a German-born U.S. fighter pilot, is the only man among them capable of not just withstanding the brutal conditions but of plotting rebellion with a sense of joie de vivre.

Throughout the hell of his wartime experience, Dieter Dengler maintains an unshakable gratitude to the United States for helping him become a pilot, and it is his childlike, inspiring obsession with flight — even more than his tenacity and discipline as a soldier — that make him a transcendent figure, worthy of two films directed by the great Werner Herzog.

Rescue Dawn is currently in theaters.


You’ve said in the past that you don’t necessarily differentiate between documentary and fiction films. Can you talk about your desire to reexamine the life of Dieter Dengler after having made Little Dieter Needs to Fly? For me, documentaries and feature films are all movies, and of course when you say “documentaries” you always have to put it in quotes, because I am quite inventive and imaginative, and I’ve always been after a different form of truth. It’s not that much fact-based — I’m not an accountant of facts. I’ve always been after an ecstasy of truth, an illumination of truth. So in that respect, feature films or documentaries do not really matter for me. Now with regards to Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a “documentary” in quotes, and Rescue DawnRescue Dawn was always the first film. When I met Dieter Dengler, it was always clear this was a big epic story and a character larger than life. Because there was instant money for a documentary, we did the documentary, and it took a while until we had the finances, the cast, the organization on the ground and so forth, for Rescue Dawn. But retroactively, I would always see Rescue Dawn as the first film. And both films in a way complement each other quite well.

As Dengler died in early 2001 [of ALS], do you think that people might interpret Rescue Dawn as a commentary on America’s current geopolitical relationship with the rest of the world? That always will happen with a film because an audience sees it with its own background, which is the immediate, present time. And of course if you show the film in, let’s say, a correctional facility, if you show it to prisoners, they will understand it as a prison movie, as a prison break movie. American general audiences will always see it in context of warfare. Nowadays it is Iraq. Yes, that’s fine and it’s legitimate. It wasn’t planned that way. But I’d like to point out one fact: we are showing the film for the first time on July 4, Independence Day. There were some delays in releasing the film, so I’m glad that all of a sudden we’re out on Independence Day. [laughs] Of course, there are lots of fireworks, lots of beer drinking [on the Fourth of July], but in a way it is a day of self-definition for America. [Americans] are looking back at their origins, and this is a film that shows somehow a man who is quintessentially American, an immigrant of course, but an immigrant who came with a big dream, and had everything I like in Americans — this kind of self-reliance and optimism, street wisdom, courage, loyalty. I think it’s a good thing this film is being released on July 4, even though it might be suicidal to compete with the very, very big-caliber films that are coming out on that day. It’s the most contested weekend throughout the entire year, I guess.

You talked about the way the two films complement each other. In both of the films you use the same period military information film as well as some of the same bombing footage. Do you think those images take on a different meaning when they’re shown in the context of a “documentary” film versus a scripted film? I don’t think so. This image is so powerful and so strange and has such a weird intensity of beauty as well. That’s the scary thing, that it looks so beautiful. I believe the image is basically of the same emotional and cultural impact in both films.

When you approached Rescue Dawn, were you simply trying to discover, as you said, the “ecstatic truth” in rendering Dengler’s story, or did you think of it in context of other war films, escape films or POW films? It’s not a war film — we have to be cautious. It’s a film more in the sense of Joseph Conrad’s short stories. It’s the test and trial of men. The war doesn’t really factor in the movie. In five minutes it’s over. Dieter Dengler was shot down 40 minutes into his first mission. That was the real story behind it. And the film Rescue Dawn doesn’t deal with the Vietnam War at all. At that time in 1965, the Vietnam War was not a full conflagration of war yet. Nobody believed that it would develop into such a large conflict. And of course, number one, I’m a storyteller. Number two, I’m trying to look deep into our human condition, to understand the human heart, and that’s why I try to point out, Do not be misled, don’t think that this is a war movie. It is, as I said, a test and trial of men.

In Rescue Dawn you have Dieter repeat the story that inspired Little Dieter Needs to Fly [about seeing a low-flying U.S. military plane as a child]. It’s a wonderful monologue, and it embodies so much of what you talk about in terms of his optimism. Can you talk a little bit about the basic human attraction, as you see it, to doing something that is wholly unnatural to humans — flying? It’s a big dream, and Dieter has had this dream in him since he was five years old and his house was attacked by a bomber and the whole town around him was laid to waste and put to rubble and ashes. He sees this plane diving down at his house, firing from its wingtips and dashing by the house, and the canopy is open and the pilot has his goggles on the helmet and their eyes lock for a split second. That was some sort of epiphany for this little kid. He was not frightened, and he saw [pilots] as almighty beings coming out of the clouds. From that moment he wanted to fly, he needed to fly. He had this dream of flying throughout his life, and that means after he was shot down and rescued finally, he left the military service and became a civilian test pilot, surviving four more crashes. Even when we showed Little Dieter Needs to Fly at the Telluride Film Festival, he flew in on his little Cessna airplane, and the first night he slept in the cockpit, because that’s where he felt safe. There was something magnificent about this dream, and America made it possible for him.

A couple months ago at the Aero Theater, I attended screenings of several of your films and heard you speak afterwards. Between showings of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo you spoke about the joy of floating down a river in the jungle. That’s a recurring motif in your work. What draws you to the jungle? Well, I’ve made quite a few films in jungles, but I’ve also made films in deserts and mountaintops and elsewhere. It’s the physicality of the jungle that attracts me — the looming and dangerous beauty in it. But I’ve never used a jungle as a scenic backdrop. It’s always somehow like an inner landscape, like fever dreams of a landscape. [It has] a human quality. Rescue Dawn needed to be in a jungle in Southeast Asia, and in a way it’s my most physical film. It’s more physical than Aguirre.

Do you feel a lot of parallels between yourself and Dieter Dengler, even beyond your similar place of birth and living in America after that? That’s a good observation, because we became instant friends after having experienced a very, very similar childhood and youth. It’s not just moving to America or whatever, but that both of us experienced hunger as a child, and you cannot explain that to someone who grew up in affluence. You cannot explain it to Americans — they will not understand the concept of being really, really hungry. Both of us lived in the ruins of postwar Germany — again, very hard to understand for Americans. Of course, Americans have seen Ground Zero in Manhattan, the World Trade Center being reduced to a huge pile of rubble. But in Germany, entire towns — 715 entire towns — were laid to waste like Ground Zero. Growing up like that is not an experience you can really explain easily, but between Dieter and I, we could share it instantly. And both of us had big dreams as kids. In his case, it was flying. Strangely enough, for me it was also flying. I wanted to become the world champion of ski jumpers, of ski flyers. Going over ramps. And that ended abruptly when I was 15 and my best friend at the time had a near-fatal accident on a ramp.

How useful, or cumbersome, do you find your own mythology? What sorts of things do people expect from you when they meet you for the first time, and how do you think those expectations are skewed? I don’t feel any burden of expectations. I’m good at storytelling. I can immediately know when there is something big out there. For example, Grizzly Man, I immediately knew this was big — I had to do it. Rescue Dawn, Little Dieter Needs to Fly — same thing. And private mythology... I don’t even know what that would be. [laughs] People just expect from me a good film, a real good story, and I’ve always delivered in a way.

There’s a well-known story that after you read the encyclopedia, you said that you learned everything that you need to make films. So I’m curious, what did you see in the world around you in the form of art that moved you after that? I didn’t know movies as a child because I never saw any in this remote mountain area in Bavaria where I grew up. Until I was 11, I didn’t see any films. In fact, I didn’t even know that cinema existed. At age 15 or 16 or so, it was clear I would make films, but I always knew that film school was not for me. I wouldn’t like to be an assistant. So I looked into a dictionary and learned in 20 pages or so how a camera in principle functions, and how a lab works, and what was an optical soundtrack. Things like that. Because you do not really learn filmmaking at film school. Yes, you can learn the technicalities. But ultimately you can learn the technicalities very quickly, and that’s about it. And the rest you cannot learn in film school. It’s something else.

What do you think that something else is? In my case, it was being out in life. Traveling on foot, going to Africa. Having experienced being in jail in Africa. Having experienced hunger in my childhood. Having seen the world. It’s a little bit like when you read Joseph Conrad’s short stories, or when you read Hemingway — you know there are people out there like those writers who somehow transform life that they have seen and experienced into literature. And in a way, it’s not only practical experiences. It’s also some sort of inner life that’s in these films that I make. A clear vision that is beyond the practicalities of life.

There’s been quite a bit written about the drama involved in the making of Rescue Dawn. I’m referring now specifically to the New Yorker article on the difficulties of the film’s production. And the film’s release date was originally December and now it’s moved to July 4. Do you have any feelings whatsoever about all of this, or do you just see it as something out of your hands? I don’t think there was big drama. Actually, the New Yorker article was done during the first week of shooting, when a Thai crew and a part-Hollywood crew and part-European crew had to be coordinated, and of course I was not working like an accountant according to the rules of Hollywood shooting. [laughs] So sure, the team had to be coordinated, and that was over in about a week, and it was very easy from then on. Of course, the production was very problematic because the producers had no real experience in filmmaking. Which was in a way okay, and maybe in a way a blessing, because I did the film exactly the way I wanted to do it. The integrity of the film is untouched. If you would imagine the film being financed by a Hollywood studio, they probably wouldn’t have allowed me to cast the film with Christian Bale, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies. Steve Zahn, everybody would have said, Oh yeah, he’s the funny sidekick of Eddie Murphy — how can you entrust such a big and different part onto his shoulders? I did, and he’s phenomenal. And I think it was a blessing in a way. And having some delays of release, so what? The film will see the light of day, and I think it will see the light of day at an appropriate day — Independence Day. [laughs]


You said a studio wouldn’t have supported your decision to cast Steve Zahn. I’m just speculating. Probably the pressure on me would have been much harder by a studio. Of course there was some pressure by one of the producers, who tried, for example, to have rock music in the film as a music score. [laughs] And I said, “No, that’s not going to happen.” So it took a while to convince them of my attitude towards music.

I read that initially you didn’t want to film any scenes of Dieter Dengler being tortured, but that you finally changed your mind. Can you talk about that decision? That’s not really correct, because in the screenplay there are scenes described, and they look all right in writing. Once I filmed them, I had the feeling that no, it doesn’t look right for me as a spectator. And I’m not speaking as a director now. As a spectator, I do not like to see violence against the defenseless. I do not want to see in graphic detail the rape of a woman, for example. I do not want to see someone being tortured. So I eliminated most of what was shot. Now the scenes we have in there are not really all that drastic, nor were the other scenes so drastic that we cut them out. The film was too long anyway. I had to shorten it down, and it was a pleasure to cut out some scenes that didn’t feel right for me.

When Dieter spoke about what actually happened to him, I think he referred to the period covered by your film as the exciting time in his life or the happy time...? No, “the fun part.” [laughs] He was very healthy in his attitude to cope with all of this, probably because he learned a lot of coping with adversity in his childhood. But in a way, of course, he was still haunted by that time, and you can tell in the documentary. It gives you a look under his kitchen floor — he has hundreds of kilos of rice and flour and honey stashed away. Of course there must be something still in him. My wife once asked him, “Dieter, from this ordeal, do you still have any nightmares?” And he looked at her very calmly and smiled and said, “Honey, this was the fun part of my life.” He brushed it aside in a way, but I liked him for this attitude because he coped with it in a very manly way without overdoing it. He was never macho and pretending, but he was a man who could cope with it, and I really admired him for that.

Did you find that that attitude was his most defining characteristic? No, it was something else. It was his intense joy of life. Because even after being in captivity and almost dying, and being in medieval foot blocks for five months, and being cross-handcuffed with five other prisoners, he still had this intense joy of life. And he was incredibly charming with women. Women in his presence felt the most wonderful human that you could ever encounter. Dieter had this charisma and this sense of joy that was overwhelming. And he was also what I would call a real good soldier — courageous, loyal and really good in his basic attitude. Honest. I think with one single soldier like him in the prison of Abu Ghraib, things would not have happened there. He would have prevented it. He would have said to them, “This is not how a good soldier would behave.” So he had great qualities. And of course he was such a good speaker. When he developed Lou Gehrig’s, the first thing that goes is speech. I said to Dieter, “What an outrage, what an injustice! The two greatest rappers on this planet, Muhammad Ali and you, are speechless now.” [laughs] And he grinned and he told me, “Now comes the fantastic moment, without having speech anymore: a dirty joke in gestures.” And we were rolling on his floor.

Do you personally relate to that optimism and joy of life? Or is it somewhat exotic to you? I just admire it. I wish that I had it in me. I’m certainly not as optimistic as Dieter was. But Dieter is still quite close in the way that whenever there’s a complicated situation, somehow I ask myself almost inadvertently, What would Dieter do in a moment like this? And I come to a very quick solution.

Do most films that you watch seem to lack that desire to explore unique locations or represent locations in a unique way? Many of the films that I see lack basic qualities of great storytelling. I do not see enough films like Casablanca or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Much of it has shifted into digital effects, which is okay, but there’s some sort of a sense of a deficit of real storytelling. But that’s okay, and besides, I really don’t watch that many films. I don’t see much more than eight or ten films a year on average.

For those eight or ten films, what is it that draws you to see them? Sometimes very bizarre reasons. I was invited to a film that I kind of liked — it was about spring rites of high school and college students in Cancún, Mexico. And the only point of the film was who was getting laid first. And it was so honestly focused on that that in a way I liked the film even though the film didn’t last more than a weekend in the theaters. [laughs]

[laughs] So you admired the honesty and clarity of its intentions? Yes. You see, I like films that are not pretentious and artsy-fartsy at all. I kind of liked it, yeah. And I am a great fan of Fred Astaire.

Having traveled all around the world and filmed in most of it, can you talk about what drew you to make a home in Los Angeles? Very easy to answer. I got married, and I’m very happily married. And besides, in my opinion Los Angeles is the city with the most substance in the United States. Culturally. You have to look beyond the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and then you discover it very quickly.

Can you talk about your newest film and shooting in Antarctica? Well, after Rescue Dawn I’ve actually completed two films. One is a science fiction film, The Wild Blue Yonder, and you can see it on DVD. And I did a film in Antarctica at the end of last year. It’s basically finished, and its tentative title is Encounters at the End of the World. But it’s not a film about fluffy penguins. It actually has a sequence with penguins in it, but I’m dealing with questions of insanity among penguins.

Insanity among penguins? Insanity and prostitution among penguins. Well, a scholar who’s studied penguins for almost 20 years speaks about a primitive form of prostitution among penguins, which I kind of find fascinating. But that’s only one segment of the film. The film has to do mostly with other things. [laughs]

How common is the occurrence of penguin prostitution? Well, you have to see the film. But it’s just a small footnote.

Are there any specific stories or locations that you haven’t yet explored that you’re dying to film at this point? It always depends on the story. I’m not one of these explorers of old who wants to go to all continents and to travel everywhere. I always work in a way that is related to a story. Rescue Dawn had to be shot in the jungles of Southeast Asia with credible people, hill tribe people for example that you would find in Laos. Of course we were across the border into Thailand near the Burmese border. You have to go there, you have to do it credibly, so it’s not just that I wanted to be in the jungle in northern Thailand. When you do a film about Antarctica, you’d better not create Antarctica in a studio set; you’d better go out there and do it.


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