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Werner Herzog

The Tests and Trials of Men

April 11, 2007  |  12:00am
Werner Herzog

Reports that legendary art-house filmmaker Werner Herzog has made a low-brow Hollywood action movie have, as it turns out, been greatly exaggerated. When news surfaced recently that he was in Thailand shooting a Vietnam war film with Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, and Jeremy Davies, some of his die-hard fans worried he’d “gone to the dark side.” But separating fact from folklore in Herzog’s universe has never been easy, and the smart money always says, “Wait and see.”

After all, Herzog’s life seems as colorful and unpredictable as the subjects of his films. To wit: He once walked—walked—from Munich to Paris to see a seriously ill friend. He once cooked and ate his shoe to keep the promise he’d made to his student, Errol Morris. And he once helped Joaquin Phoenix out of the wreckage of his car when the actor’s brakes failed on a canyon road.

Legends and myths have followed the man with the soft Bavarian accent everywhere he goes, and it’s not hard to see why. Herzog’s abdomen was grazed by a shot from an air rifle during a recent television interview (see YouTube.com), but he insisted on continuing the discussion, saying, “It’s not a significant bullet.” And he once threatened to pump eight bullets of his own into unruly actor Klaus Kinski if he left the set of Aguirre: The Wrath of God before filming was complete. Herzog added that he was saving a ninth bullet for himself. Kinski stayed, and together they finished not only Aguirre but four more films over the years. (Herzog says he was unarmed when he made the threat.)

Legends, tall tales, staged antics? Perhaps. But strip them away and you’re left with an artist who, film after film, year after year, has explored the uneasy relationship humans have with the physical world. His latest film is another step in this journey. Rescue Dawn is based on a story Herzog told before in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a documentary about fighter pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down over Laos in 1966. “It’s not a remake,” he says, during a stop in San Francisco. “This is unfinished business. There was too great a story out there, and it shouldn’t remain untold. And Christian Bale as the leading character is probably more intense and better than anything you have ever seen from him.”

In the film, Bale eats a meal of maggots, is dragged across the ground by cattle, and is bound and lowered, up to his cheekbones, into a narrow well of water—and it’s clear that Bale, not a stuntman, is the one sampling the various tortures the real Dengler withstood in a prison camp. Through all of the trials, Bale accurately maintains the odd enthusiasm, the strange exuberance Dengler displayed in the documentary. Dengler was a natural leader who never saw a problem he didn’t want to solve; a man with no real interest in war except that it gave him a reason to excel.

“Much of what I like about America was somehow in Dieter Dengler’s character,” Herzog says. “Loyalty, frontier spirit, optimism, self reliance. You just name it; everything I like about America was in him. And that’s why I think Christian Bale is such a good choice for the character.” Herzog grins, perhaps wondering if I’m going to point out that Bale is Welsh. But I don’t, because the America he’s talking about is an idea, not a place. Dengler was born in Germany but found a home in the States, like Herzog himself. In Rescue Dawn, when Dengler’s captors suggest they’ll let him go if he denounces America, he refuses. “America gave me wings,” he says, and that’s that.

Like all of his films, Rescue Dawn is instantly recognizable as a Herzog project, though not because of any particular visual trademark. If anything, Herzog’s films are marked by a lack of artifice. They’re crude by most measures. For all the talk of his wild shoots, Herzog’s real talent reaches its peak not on the set or in the jungle but in the editing suite where he has an eye for the simple beauty that’s buried in found footage, and a knack for spotting his favorite themes in the most unlikely places. It’s his variations on these familiar themes—especially men working against impossible obstacles—that define a Herzog film.

His recent art-house hit, Grizzly Man, was no exception. The film—a profile of nature lover Timothy Treadwell, who unwisely tried to live among wild bears in Alaska until he was devoured—cuts a Herzogian swath across the hillside: A man attempts to find harmony with nature but instead finds, as Herzog puts it, “chaos, hostility and murder.” Looming over the film is not only the horror of Treadwell’s demise but also an audio recording of the tragedy, taped inadvertently by the video camera in Treadwell’s tent. Herzog tastefully omits it from the film, but he makes the viewer aware of its existence.

“The question of the tape which recorded Timothy Treadwell’s death and Amie Huguenard’s death is something that I had to address,” Herzog says. “So I listened to it, and that’s the only time I appear in the film. You only see me from behind, listening to it with earphones. The interesting thing is that Jewel Palovak who was working with Treadwell and living with Treadwell for 20 years tries to read my face, and it’s very, very intense and moving for her. The moment I heard the tape it was instantly clear: Only over my dead body is this tape going to end up in the movie. I’m not into doing a snuΩ film, and I have to respect the dignity and privacy of two individuals’ deaths.”

In the film, Herzog encourages Palovak to destroy the tape. “Yes, but that was stupid,” Herzog says now. “Silly advice born out of the immediate shock of hearing—I mean, it’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Being shocked like that, I told her, ‘You should never listen to it, and you should rather destroy it. It should not be sitting on your shelf in your living room all the time.’ [But] she slept over it and decided to do something much wiser. She did not destroy it but separated herself from the tape, and she put it in a bank vault.”

In the cool light of day, Herzog cannot bear the thought of destroying a recording that evokes a response from its audience. But playing the recording is another matter. Grizzly Man—and nearly all of the films Herzog has made over the last four decades—show where his interests lie: not in the horrifying acts themselves, which rarely appear, but in the knowledge that they happen; not in the bolt of lightning that strikes at our hearts, but in the slow rumble buried within dark clouds. His films are reminders that we live in an inhospitable world, but one with just enough air for us to live and breathe and tell our tales.

“I’d like to add one thing about Rescue Dawn,” Herzog says at the end of our conversation. “Rescue Dawn is not a war movie. It’s a film about the test and trial of men.” With emphasis he adds, “And survival.”

Those who know Herzog’s work never suspected anything else.

Read about other films you should see from Herzog's legendary career here.

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