Werner Herzog has always been attracted to driven characters: men (for there are few women in his films) on the edge of a madness for life, pushing boundaries, pushing other people, pushing themselves. In two of his most well known films – Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo – the men grappling with the dangerous energies of life were played by Klaus Kinski, himself a kind of madman, about whom Herzog made a reflective documentary My Best Fiend. They had a tumultuous relationship including a much talked about incident when Herzog threatened to kill Kinski. Many people – Kinski included – have commented that Herzog himself is a driven man, and he has built a reputation for facing – perhaps creating – monstrous difficulties in his film making – like dragging a boat over a mountain, using a chainsaw to cut off the foot of a crew member who had been bitten by a deadly snake, and on another occasion hypnotising his entire cast.
Emerging with other famous members of what became known as the New German Cinema in the late 1960’s, Herzog has made more than 60 films, blurring the distinction between documentary and narrative. He retains complete control over his films and stamps them with his personal fascinations. His latest film Rescue Dawn, is no exception – following the extraordinary true tale of German-born American pilot Dieter Dengler and his escape from a prison camp deep in the jungle during America’s secret war in Laos.
Yet Rescue Dawn is probably Herzog’s most accessible film, and concludes with a scene befitting a mainstream American POW movie. Herzog agrees it is more celebratory in theme, but reacts instantly to the “H” word lingering in the air. “It has nothing to do with Hollywood, and is not a real American story”, he says. “Yes, the ending is a great triumphant return of a man who was near death, but it’s not done in a primitive patriotic way. It plays against the usual Hollywood approach, and like all good storytelling it can’t be reduced to a simple message. If a story is the about the good guy and the bad guy, it will exhaust itself very quickly. In Rescue Dawn the story and the characters – all of them – have great complexity and the whole environment of the film adds more layers.”
In our conversation, Herzog uses the word ‘complexity’ many times, and it goes some way to help understand his approach to telling stories on the screen. “Real storytelling,” he says “has a beauty, because of its mysteries and its dynamics and its complexities and its illuminations.”
The man at the centre of Rescue Dawn‘s complexities – Dieter Dengler – became close friends with Herzog during the making of a documentary about Dengler’s life called Little Dieter Needs to Fly. It covers much of the same ground as Rescue Dawn but fills in the background of Dengler’s childhood and his later life. Yet even though the documentary was released well before Rescue Dawn, Herzog doesn’t separate the two films so easily. “ I never think that the documentary was made first. It was always clear to me that his man was larger than life and his story was a huge epic. I knew from the start that there had to be a feature film, and the documentary is a feature in disguise. In both films there is an inventiveness because I have intensified the essence or the truth of Dengler in them. They complement each other, but in my heart the feature film was written first.”
Dengler, like Herzog, grew up in ruins of post war Germany, and Herzog described their closeness as like brothers. “We experienced many things that a child should not. We were really hungry. Dieter’s mother would rip down the wallpaper from their house and cook it for food. His father disappeared, my father left our family. We both had to be self reliant, and despite the ruins of our country, I had a fantastic childhood with many freedoms. So did Dieter, and in particular he developed so much street smartness. I think it was this that helped him survive.”
Sadly, Dengler died before the Rescue Dawn was finished, Herzog spending time with him as he succumbed rapidly to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Herzog recalls a promise he made. “I said to him – and we were very open – ‘Dieter, you will never see this film, you will be dead, but the moment in the story when you return, I will give the film back to you. You will be dead already, but I will do it.” Knowing this helps understand the celebratory ending of the film, a clear departure from a filmmaker who’s frenetic heroes usually end up bringing on their own tragic death.