Werner Herzog wants to fly


Werner Herzog is the anti-Gus Van Sant. Not to pick on Mr. Van Sant too much, but a viewer knows if they are watching a Herzog movie. I personally haven't yet seen every Herzog picture, but I'm working towards that milestone as quickly as possible, and I haven't encountered a dud yet. Not every Herzog film is a masterwork, mind you, but all are interesting, intriguing and thought-provoking.

Am looking forward to seeing Rescue Dawn (and his previous film, Wild Blue Yonder).

Patrick Goldstein (of the LA Times) writes:

In his life and work, Werner Herzog welcomes risks:

In the living room of his cozy home in the hills above Los Angeles, Werner Herzog has a quiver of brightly colored arrows from a tribe of Amazon Indians he met while making one of his many documentaries. Tribe members were the last people in the Amazon to be, as the filmmaker puts it, “contacted” by white people.

As I went to touch the point of one arrow, he cautioned, “They're still quite poisonous. The brown stuff on the inside is anticoagulant. If you get hit with one, you won't stop bleeding easily.”

When Werner Herzog issues a warning, it's prudent to obey. At 64, he is our filmmaking god of dark adventure, a willful artist whose characters -- both in his features and documentaries -- test the boundaries of human madness and quixotic folly. Herzog is best known for German classics such as 1982's “Fitzcarraldo,” the story of a man who attempts to build an opera house in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. In recent years, he has devoted himself to documentaries about equally obsessive characters, notably “Grizzly Man,” the 2005 film about Timothy Treadwell, the ill-fated adventurer whose affinity for bears led him to a grisly end in the wilds of Alaska.

Herzog's new film is something of an event, being his first widely distributed feature since the early 1980s. Due out in Chicago July 13, “Rescue Dawn” is another of his fables about the dark recesses of human nature. Set during the Vietnam War, the real-life story stars Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler, a German-born U.S. fighter pilot who escapes from a POW camp after being tortured by the Pathet Lao deep in the Laotian jungle. Audacious and ingenious, Dengler is the most accessible hero Herzog has ever put on screen.

Herzog knew Dengler personally -- he did a 1997 documentary (“Little Dieter Needs to Fly”) about the same events. Well acquainted with the horrors of war, having grown up starving and fatherless in postwar Germany, Herzog refuses to shy away from the brutality that Dengler, who died in 2001, and his fellow prisoners suffered at the hands of their guards.

As with so many of his films, Herzog shot much of the picture documentary-style, filming for weeks in the jungles of Thailand. He instructed his actors to lose weight -- Bale lost 55 pounds to give himself an appropriately skeletal look -- and dropped nearly 30 pounds himself as a form of “solidarity.”

Even if the filmmaker's reputation for rigor hadn't preceded him, the actors knew they wouldn't be coddled. “My first question to Christian was, 'Would you be prepared to bite a snake in two?'” Herzog recalls. “He immediately said, 'Yes.' As it happens, he did catch a snake that tried to bite him. But it wasn't poisonous.” The filmmaker sighs, as if brooding about a deadly snake was hardly worth the bother. “I always offered to demonstrate anything the actors were worried about.”

The film's torture scenes have an unsettling resonance today, with one former prisoner of war, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), running for president and the country at odds over America's treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Herzog is especially proud that “Rescue Dawn” opens shortly after the 4th of July.

“It's a day, after the fireworks and the beer, that America looks at itself,” he says. “The film doesn't engage in any America-bashing or primitive patriotism. But I would say that everything that is great about America was contradicted by Abu Ghraib. If Dieter had been in that prison, we wouldn't have seen what we did. One single man could've made a difference, especially someone like Dieter, who came to America as an immigrant wanting to live out his dream -- a dream to fly.”

Herzog is also an immigrant to America, though his dreams have always been more complicated. The filmmaker's worldview is best captured in “Grizzly Man” when, in his role as narrator, he says, “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony but chaos, hostility and murder.”

I respect Elton Brand (who should still be on the Chicago Bulls team) more than ever for the simple fact that he is a producer on the film.

Thwarted for years from doing a major feature, Herzog wasn't all that choosy about who financed “Rescue Dawn.” His neophyte backers included nightclub operator Steve Marlton and Los Angeles Clippers star Elton Brand. According to a New Yorker piece that ran not long after filming was completed, key members of the crew quit in disgust or were fired during production when paychecks didn't materialize. The crew also was frustrated by Herzog's unorthodox shooting style, which included an insistence on using himself as a stand-in for Bale and other actors.

From a recent New Yorker review (Anthony Lane) comes this insight into Herzog:

What links the showman behind “Transformers” with the maker of “Fitzcarraldo,” “Aguirre, Wrath of God,” and other excursions into savagery and silence? The answer lies in a charge that Herzog has levelled at himself: “I am someone who takes everything very literally. I simply do not understand irony.” Neither man is embarrassed by this lack, but, while it has helped to unbridle Bay and send him galloping into bombast, Herzog has been left to browse among the eccentrics and daydreamers who populate his films. To him, indeed, they are the opposite of eccentric; Kaspar Hauser, the hero of “Every Man for Himself and God Against All” (1974), is raised like a beast in a stall, and yet, as the director says, “he is at the center.”

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more from Patrick Goldstein

For Herzog, the borderline between fiction and reality is hazy at best. Facts, he says, are for accountants. He often tells stories that seem hyperbolic, beginning with the tale that his childhood was spent in a Bavarian village so remote that he didn't see a banana until he was 12.

Who would believe, for instance, that when Joaquin Phoenix flipped his car driving down a back road in Laurel Canyon it would be the eccentric filmmaker knocking on his car window. As Phoenix later told The Times: “There was this German voice saying, 'Just relax.' And suddenly I said to myself, 'That's Werner Herzog!'”

When I asked about the incident, Herzog offered the sort of droll detail you'd expect from a master storyteller. “The danger wasn't the accident, per se,” he says. “It was the gasoline dripping from the car and the fact that Joaquin, then upside down, was nervously fumbling for a cigarette, an act I had to talk him out of. Once I saw the gasoline, I thought the idea of him smoking would be a very bad idea.”

For Herzog, in true art, the story is always changing. When filming “Rescue Dawn,” it drove his crew crazy that he couldn't remember anything about the script, even though he'd written it himself. “I never read a screenplay once I've finished it -- it stifles life on the set,” he says. “It's unhealthy to be too absorbed in your own text. When I'm shooting I want to discover the story all over again.”

had never worked with him before. “They came with the pedantic thinking of the studio system -- that, for example, you must first do a master shot with everyone in frame before you do close-ups.”

Herzog insists there was a method to his madness. “By being the last person out between the actors and the technical apparatus, I could tell when the actors were sometimes not ready for a scene. So I would stall, without the crew knowing, by pretending to change a camera filter. But I only could sense a problem because I was right there, next to the actors.”

The movie's finances were so shaky during filming that Herzog never saw dailies. “No one had paid the lab, so they wouldn't release our footage,” he says. But he insists the problems were from ignorance, not malevolence. “The producers' inexperience was a nightmare, but it was a blessing, too, because by them not knowing what was going on, I was allowed to do exactly the movie I wanted to do.”

He shrugs. “Why shouldn't I do a movie with a producer who's a nightclub owner? May I remind you that Sam Goldwyn was a glove salesman and Jon Peters a hairdresser? The real question is, did I ever compromise? The answer is no.”


The NYRB had a review (and brief interesting character study) in the most recent issue. The author suggest watching Little Dieter Needs to Fly instead of the new drama, which he found sub-par.

As you say, though--even Herzog's failures are intersting.

The New Yorker's review of Rescue Dawn is tepid too. I haven't yet seen Little Dieter, but is in my queue.

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on July 9, 2007 12:02 PM.

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