Rescue Dawn
directed by Werner Herzog

Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog’s first Hollywood feature film, is a powerful and compelling movie by every standard except that set by Herzog himself in earlier films. The great German auteur has been making films since 1962, including several of the most original and unforgettable works in modern cinema. Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), both filmed in the Amazon jungle with the actor Klaus Kinski, are now widely regarded as epic masterpieces. Herzog’s cinematography is awe-inspiring, and while both films initially struck audiences and critics as weird and confusing, they are now understood as convention-shattering depictions of the madness of colonialism and vindications of Herzog’s artistic genius.

The opening scene of Aguirre, The Wrath of God, one of the most compelling moments in modern film, almost failed because of Herzog’s colossal ambition. He had assembled a huge cast of actors and local Amazon Indians, and planned to film them—as conquistadors with their enslaved Indians—clambering down the Andean mountainside to a tributary of the Amazon where they would embark on rafts in search of El Dorado. But Herzog’s resources were stretched to the breaking point as he waited out the fog shrouding the Andes. In a miracle of good fortune, the fog parted and the sun hit the side of the mountain Herzog had chosen. The result was a monumental long distance shot of the seemingly pristine wilderness. The camera moves in slowly on the one sunlit mountainside, and picks out the members of the expedition moving through the foliage. Herzog’s conquistadores swelter in their armor, absurdly out of place in the landscape, and their Indian slaves in loincloths bend under the Europeans’ baggage. This opening procession, capturing the insanity and oppression of colonial imperialism, is a triumph of cinematic exposition. It is also a testimonial to Herzog’s filmmaking credo of authenticity, which, throughout his career, has demanded that he, his crew, and his cast be death-defying adventurers.

It was not part of the credo that his lead actor, Klaus Kinski, willingly accepted. During the filming of Fitzcarraldo, in which a real steamship is pulled over a hill from one tributary of the Amazon to another (this accomplished without the help of special effects), the men were engaged in a constant battle of wills and even threatened to kill each other. Yet the life and death struggle to decide who would be the Hegelian master and who would be the servant spanned five memorable films, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, as well as Woyzeck (1976), Nosferatu (1979), and Cobra Verde (1988). In his autobiography Kinski said that Herzog “creates the most senseless difficulties and dangers risking other peoples safety and even their lives—just so he can actually say that he, Herzog, has beaten seemingly unbeatable odds.” And Herzog, in his documentary about Kinski, titled My Best Fiend, describes calmly how he planned to kill Kinski after they returned to Europe, and was stopped only by a watchman’s presence. Yet it is clear that both men did their best work together, and both knew it.

Pauline Kael accused Herzog of being too much an artist and not enough a filmmaker: too concerned with self-expression, not enough about communicating with his audience. She found his films unsettling and disturbing, and even preferred Les Blank’s feature-length documentary Burden of Dreams, about Herzog’s struggles to film Fitzcarraldo, to the film itself (she also preferred Blank’s more sympathetic presentation of Indians). The Herzog of Burden of Dreams is meek and modest, but it is not difficult to see through the mask and agree with Kael that the man behind the camera was just as driven by his own “burden of dreams” as Kinski’s Fitzcarraldo. Herzog’s brother Tilbert says that in public Werner assumes a mask of meekness, but in private he lets you know that he considers himself a genius, a man who is reinventing cinema and who “writes the best German prose since Kleist.”

Kael, I think, felt intuitively that Herzog rejected the sentimental and political conventions that bound entertainment films. She was right; Herzog has no interest in creating films that meet the settled expectations of audiences. His films are experimental and iconoclastic. Nor is he interested in ordinary people, conventional feelings, or political correctness. And Kael is also right that he does not present the Indians of the Amazon in a sympathetic light—as noble savages, for example. In his many films about the wretched of the earth—Indians in South America, blacks in Africa, and Aborigines in Australia—he shows us the wretchedness. He does not play on our sympathies; he wants to show us the horrors that conventional sympathy helps us to conceal from ourselves. Films like Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), with a cast composed entirely of dwarfs, and God Against All/The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (1975), which cast a chronic mental patient, Bruno S., instead of an actor in the title role, left audiences stunned and bewildered. Many accused Herzog of exploiting Bruno S., as he had the dwarfs and the Amazon Indians. Herzog has often been called on to defend his films, and his most intriguing response is that as an artist he is searching for the ecstatic truth, not the conventional truth of “the accountants.” No simple formula can explain Herzog’s extraordinary and variegated filmography, but perhaps there is something of Nietzsche in his iconoclasm, and his disdain for conventions, norms, and ordinary human sensibilities.

Herzog has paid a heavy price for refusing to please the Pauline Kaels of the world. He has never had real commercial success and has always had to scramble for the money to make his films. His only major filmmaking award was for best director, for Fitzcarraldo at Cannes in 1982. In Germany he is seen as someone who, to quote Herzog himself, had gone off the “paved road.” By the end of the ’80s no one there was interested in his films. For two decades he made small-budget documentaries, mostly for television. But Herzog kept working and moved to the hills outside Los Angeles where among the Hollywood Philistines he found cineastes who admired his work and young actors who were willing to follow him into the jungle and, risking safety and health, work with him.

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It was a 90-minute documentary about Dieter Dengler, the “real life” hero of Rescue Dawn, that helped revive Herzog’s career. Dengler had the kind of story, one of survival against all odds, that has always fascinated Herzog and has been the subject of several of his films. Herzog and Dengler had a lot in common: both had grown up in postwar Germany in poverty and hardship, but neither had been defeated and both had achieved their childhood ambitions. Herzog must have seen in Dengler an alter ego. Herzog read about Dengler and asked if he could meet him at his home. Dengler agreed, and Herzog showed up with a crew of 10 and began shooting.

If Dieter had had a conventional psychological story to tell it would have been one of childhood trauma and extreme deprivation that created post-traumatic stress disorder and left him psychologically scarred and disabled. The scars would have been reopened with the trauma of being shot down as a U.S. Naval pilot over Laos during the early days of the Vietnam War, and then tortured, beaten, and starved as a prisoner of the Pathet Lao. He should have ended up a textbook case of incurable post-traumatic stress disorder. But as Dieter Dengler tells his extraordinary story, instead of hearing about trauma experienced by a child of five, we hear an epiphany: World War II was coming to an end when the little Bavarian village where his family lived inexplicably came under attack by the allied air force. Instead of taking cover he and his brother watched from an attic window. Suddenly an American fighter plane came swooping down, its machine guns blazing. The plane flew so close that its wing nearly clipped the roof. Dengler has a “snap-shot” vivid memory of the details. The canopy of the cockpit was pushed back, and the pilot’s goggles were up on his leather helmet. For an instant the German boy and the American pilot made eye contact. Instead of being terrified by this experience in which he could easily have been killed—and others were—Dieter vividly recalls that he felt exhilarated and excited. The five-year-old child’s insight is that “little Dieter needs to fly,” which would become the title of Herzog’s documentary.

If one believes Dengler’s story, what should have been the cause of nightmares instead inspired the dream of becoming a pilot, which gave purpose to Dengler’s life. The memory is the antithesis of everything modern psychology teaches us. Even neuroscientists would say that this kind of experience leaves a lasting impression in the amygdala, the fear center of the brain. Freud might say this epiphany is Dieter’s screen memory concealing the terror the child must have felt. The standard psychological explanation would be that the child victim identified with the aggressor and “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” is the formula that keeps the childhood demons at bay.

Dengler’s father was a German soldier killed in the war, another irreparable trauma. He and his family suffered poverty, privation, and despair throughout the postwar years. Dengler describes being apprenticed as a young teenager to a blacksmith, a burly man who worked him hard and beat him. But the boy kept developing his mechanical skills and dreaming of becoming a pilot. At age 18 he emigrated to America to fulfill his dream. After years of missteps, misadventures, and rough living that would have destroyed most young men’s ambitions, Dengler put himself through college, joined the naval air force and earned his wings, just in time for the Vietnam War. Dengler, who had seen his village bombed as a child, was given his first mission: bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail where it crossed into Laos. Dengler explains how he was shot down, captured, tortured, escaped, and was then miraculously rescued after surviving 23 days in the Laotian jungle. Every adversity Dengler suffered as a child in Germany prepared him to survive the horrors of the prison camp; every skill he had developed in his child-labor jobs in Germany could be applied to his escape. And unlike his defeated fellow prisoners, he was confident from the day he arrived that he would succeed in escaping and fly again. And he did.

Herzog filmed Dieter in his California home, in the jungles of Laos, and in the Bavarian village of his childhood as he reminisced and reenacted his important experiences. That Dengler coped with all of these traumas is undeniable. But whether he is psychologically unscarred is another matter. He is so upbeat, so winning in his childlike enthusiasms, that one wants to believe him. Herzog lets the obvious psychological questions about nightmares, about important relationships, go unasked. Herzog is not interested in conventional psychological theories; Little Dieter Needs to Fly does not probe beyond facades to explore the deeper strata of Dengler’s being.

But in this beautifully crafted documentary made on a shoestring budget, Herzog shares his vision of ecstatic truth. Herzog has become known for incorporating clips made by others into his films. Little Dieter begins with archival film released by the U.S. Air Force which portrays the impact of low-altitude bombings in Vietnam. We see bombs tumbling through the air onto rice paddies and village homes, creating fiery and horrifically beautiful explosions. The images of wanton desecration are accompanied by a soundtrack of Tibetan throat singing.

Diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease while he was collaborating with Herzog, Dengler died and was buried with full military honors in Arlington Cemetery before Herzog’s fictionalized portrayal of his ordeal was released. Herzog filmed his funeral and added it as a postscript to the DVD of Little Dieter. “At the end of the ceremony the folded American flag is handed to an Asian woman never seen in the documentary. She is Dengler’s third wife and her presence at the funeral tells us that there was another side of Dieter’s life that Herzog edited out of his portrait.

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Christian Bale, who plays Dieter in Rescue Dawn, gives a stunning physical performance as he wastes away before our eyes. Yet compared with the real Dieter he seems psychologically one-dimensional. Bale was totally committed to the role and to Herzog’s project. Before casting Bale (who played Batman) Herzog asked him if he would be willing to bite a snake in two. Bale not only agreed: he was also willing to lose fifty pounds and suffer all kinds of indignities in the Laotian jungle to work with the “great man.”

Bale studied the documentary and understood the depth and complexity of Dieter Dengler. But he seems to have fastened on the childlike optimism that Dengler presented to Herzog’s camera and to have been less interested in what made the real Dieter so poignantly appealing: the sense that he was smiling bravely through the pain. Instead, Bale’s smiling optimism—strangely inappropriate, even goofy—keeps the viewer at a distance. But Herzog must take some responsibility for Bale’s performance. Together they apparently decided that, given his past, Dieter Dengler could not have believed that he was bombing Laotian civilians. Nor could he believe that the Laotians would consider him their hated enemy. So when he is shot down and captured, Bale’s Dieter smiles at everyone and expects to make friends. And he smiles his way all through his captivity. He even smiles when he eats the plate of live maggots served to the prisoners instead of food. Only then does Bale convey that this is the smile of a madman, whose crazed optimism will help him survive. This kind of madness fascinates Herzog: those who have it are his übermensches. Their “burden of dreams” may lead to death, as it did with Timothy Treadwell in Herzog’s Grizzly Man or save one’s life as it does in Rescue Dawn.

After Dieter’s escape from the prison camp and during his harrowing passage through the jungle, Herzog and his actors are at their best. Bale as Dieter and Steve Zahn as Duane endure the unendurable and cling to each other in a way that is unmistakably a kind of love. And Herzog finds even more in his fictional Dieter. His mad optimism not only prolongs Duane’s life, but after he has been miraculously saved Herzog presents him to the entire crew of his aircraft carrier as a resurrected man. He is living proof that it is possible for an MIA pilot to come back from the dead, and his miracle sustains their hope. Rescue Dawn is not one of Herzog’s greatest, most challenging films; still, it offers what one rarely finds in movie theaters: an ambitious work of art that disrupts our sensibilities.