Werner Herzog is a fucking animal. He makes a movie every year practically, from art house classics to gripping documentaries, and now he’s taking on Hollywood at its own game, with Rescue Dawn, and an upcoming remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant with Nicholas Cage. Part of me thinks that will be like The Wicker Man remake, but if anyone can beat a performance out of an actor, it’s Herzog. He kept a gun on set when working with Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God to keep him under control.
When he’s not making movies, he’s been known to save people like Joaquin Phoenix from car crashes.
Probably best known for his documentary Grizzly Man, Herzog has made literally dozens of films over his career. In the beginning he worked with a stolen camera, the ultimate in rogue filmmaking. By the time Grizzly Man came along he had his own cameras, but the energy and spirit he manages to capture on film has not changed. He has always been interested in obsessed individuals, and Timothy Treadwell, the guy who walked up to wild grizzly bears, was definitely one of them.
Another, more heroic figure is that of Dieter Dengler. He was a pilot in the early days of the Vietnam conflict, was shot down on a raid, and was held as a prisoner of war for many months. Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale as Dieter, dramatizes his account as a pilot, prisoner, and how he escaped and survived in the jungle for 23 days before being rescued. It’s a very naturalistic movie and feels like an old war movie at some times, and brutally realistic at others. Shortly after his plane is shot down, he is captured in Laos and dragged to a prison camp, with a few other U.S. and Thai soldiers. He is tortured with bamboo splinters, beatings, and submerged in a well up to his neck; overnight he and his fellow prisoners are shackled by the ankles.
Steve Zahn is one of his fellow P.O.W.s and gives a stunning performance as a broken-down man. Bale on the other hand does a fine job playing Dengler, a man who grew up in post-war Germany scrounging for scraps, so he has undergone suffering before. He’s steeled to it, and keeps the men in good morale by planning their escape. He ingeniously builds a lockpick out of a shell casing, and dries and stores rice in a hollowed-out bottom of his shit-can; he was a tool and die maker before he joined the Air Force, and has a way with metals. It takes months for his plan to come to fruition, and nothing goes as planned; he and Zahn end up on their own, with a single tennis shoe to protect their feet from the jungle floor.
This is no Missing in Action or Rambo 2, and when they do escape, it is by the skin of their teeth. When Dengler was rescued, he weighed a mere 85 pounds. Bale doesn’t pare down to that extreme weight like he did for The Machinist, but does look like a man fighting for his life in the jungle. The story is exciting and realistic, and beautifully filmed. Herzog has always had an artist’s eye for composure and presenting nature in all its terrible beauty, and the jungles of Indochina are the perfect palette for him.
If you pair the film with the 75-minute documentary he made prior to dramatizing the story, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, you get the story behind the man who seems always too cheerful to be in a prison camp. He stockpiles huge amounts of dry goods after his starved childhood and time as a P.O.W., and talks about how we take simple thinks like an unlocked door for granted. As a child he saw a bomber pilot, and resolved to fly planes. In Germany after the war this was impossible. He tells us of how his mother would cook wallpaper for the nutrients in the glue, things were so dire. He remembers the first time he saw a sausage for sale in a shop, and how no one he knew could afford it.
His dream of flight eventually brought him to America, where he joined the Air Force. His dream of flight has led him to join the very army that bombed him as a child; that’s the kind of drive that makes Herzog make a documentary about you. He brings him back to the jungle so he can re-enact some of his capture and escape with the Pathet Lao, and you can see that Rescue Dawn sticks very closely to the facts. It really should come in a two-pack. After his escape, he became a test pilot and survived 4 crashes. Like the movie says, Death didn’t want him. He passed away in 2001 of Lou Gehrig’s disease, and is interred at Arlington Cemetery.