At age 65, prolific filmmaker Werner Herzog shows no signs of taking things a bit easier. Notorious for his gruelling filmmaking style, he’s famously willing to put himself through everything he demands of his actors. This led to a series of outrageous on-set experiences with eccentric star Klaus Kinski, which Herzog documented in My Best Fiend, following their often murderous relationship over the years. Herzog is the only filmmaker who has shot features on every continent. His classics include Aguirre: Wrath of God, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde and Grizzly Man, and he also finds time to act in the films of Harmony Korine. In addition to his film career, he walked on foot from Munich to Paris in 1974, was shot during an interview by journalist Mark Kermode in 2005, and rescued Joaquin Phoenix from a terrible car crash the following year. Now with Rescue Dawn, he returns to the subject of his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Wants to Fly…
When you finished the doc Little Dieter Wants to Fly, what did you think still needed to be said in a constructed narrative?
Werner Herzog: For Dieter and me it was always clear that this was unfinished business. Too many things that are really fascinating – such as what happened in the prison camp – are hardly touched in the documentary. The films complement each other very well. There was also a consensus between Dieter and me that the feature film comes first, but since technically we did it later, interestingly, the film that was not done yet influenced the first film. But in its heart the feature film has always been the first one.
Why did you wait almost 10 years to make the feature?
WH: Well, it was possible to make the feature film only when the money was available. Otherwise I would have done the feature as the first one. But the feature film in that case would have been unfinished business, because we would have seen nothing of Dieter’s childhood, nor do we see anything about his life later on, nor do we see the real man. And of course his story was fantastic before he made it to the United States and Southeast Asia, and equally afterwards. He had four more plane crashes that he survived, and children and wives and just totally wild stuff. [Dengler died at age 62 in February 2001 of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC.]
How was Christian Bale suited to the role?
WH: The simple answer: He’s the best of his generation. And I worked with the best of their generation: Steve Zahn, Christian Bale and Jeremy Davies. So I was blessed with the best of the best. With Steve Zahn, nobody expected anything from him like that because he’s mostly been the funny sidekick in Eddie Murphy movies. But I knew that Steve has something very, very special about him.
Did you cast Bale partly because of his reputation with things like extreme weight loss?
WH: Yes, but we had to be careful. Christian always said, “For God’s sake, let’s not make a great fuss about this.” Because he didn’t want to end up in the Guinness Book of World Records for starving himself. Of course in The Machinist he lost much more. And what we did was significant and visible for an audience, so that by the end of the film he has quite visibly lost some weight. And that’s fine. And we shouldn’t make a big fuss about it. It only showed the amount of dedication and professionality of everyone involved. And that’s the key to it.
But then Bale’s dedication extended to eating maggots…
WH: That’s not really incredible. I’ve seen people in other country eat maggots, and they’re very rich in protein. So there’s nothing really wrong about it. In our own cultural context we’re not accustomed to eating maggots, but Christian Bale always knew I would essentially offer to do things I asked from the actors. For example, when we were in the rapids, I spent all day with them in the water. I offered to eat a couple of spoonfuls of maggots, but in this case Christian said, “Oh for God’s sake, just turn on the camera and let me get on with it.”
Was it just one take?
WH: That was one of only two misunderstandings. One was when we were a few hundred yards apart and we had to yell over a large distance and something got lost, and for a moment we were angry with each other, but it was over in two minutes flat. And then that moment when he ate the maggots, I had told him, “You are the one who will stop the scene.” But while he ate – he probably didn’t hear it correctly – he kept eating, eating, eating, and he got kind of angry because I never said cut. So finally when the four minutes of film had run out, and everybody stopped, he said he didn’t hear cut from me. And that was the second moment where there was a kind of misunderstanding, but these things pass by so quickly. It’s just a little error. But, for example, in solidarity I lost half the amount of weight he lost. It would be counterproductive to lose the same amount because he would gain it back fairly quickly. The real challenge – because we shot the film backwards – was to develop the character backwards. To find the dynamic and the flow was quite difficult.
Why do that?
WH: Well it was a practical consideration. It takes you five or six months to lose weight but you gain it back in two or four weeks. We could have done it the other way around, but then we would have needed five or six months of shooting, and we only had 44 days. And while you are working, he would have to keep starving, starving, starving, until at the end he was very thin. So for practical reasons we had to do it backwards. Christian has been such a disciplined man. Jeremy Davies in a way overdid it. He’s quite thin, but he arrived in Thailand with quite a few very large suitcases, and it turned out they were filled with bottled water, Evian in plastic bottles. And in Thailand, right next to the hotel in the supermarket you could have bought the same ones. But he brought all his water along – he was totally wild. He ate very, very little and mostly only drank water, and that was that.
Can Christian play any character? Do you think he could even play Kinski in a biopic?
WH: No, that would be ridiculous! He couldn’t do it – no, because Kinski was kind of unique and you can’t even imitate him! Not anything. It would be wrong for him to do, for example, Kinski. Or it would be wrong for him to do Mohammad Ali. In a way I had to stop Christian from going into too much of an imitation of the real Dieter Dengler. The real Dieter Dengler had a very thick German accent, and Christian and I were quite clear: we had to dismiss that. We did not try to imitate that – just a slight hint of an accent. Christian kept saying to me, “You as a crowd won’t even hear it!” It’s so subtle. I think he could do pretty much anything, but he shouldn’t do everything. In essence, yes, but you do not imitate idiosyncrasies and actions in the same way as, for example, when you make a film about Mohammad Ali, you have to be a rapper, like Ali, and you have to dance in the ring, and you have to be like him. And Richard Nixon – you have to look pretty much alike, and you have to speak like him and move like him.
Some families of prisoners felt their relatives weren’t depicted accurately.
WH: It’s a complex question because, sure, I do understand that the family of [Davies’ character] Eugene DeBruin saw him differently, 40 years back before he went to Laos or even to Thailand, from where he flew. Apparently, and I would not have any doubts, he was a very kind family man. However, how Dieter Dengler describes him very precisely, over and over, after more than two years in medieval flip-flops, with diarrhoea, cross-handcuffed with others, there was a fair amount of delusion in him that he would be released in a week from now. Dieter told me quite often there were conflicts among the prisoners. He passes by this fleetingly in the documentary but, right after that, he said, “Well, it was much more serious. Sometimes we hated each other so bad that we would have strangled each other if we had a hand free, if we were not cross-handcuffed.” And it’s absolutely understandable that after two years cross-handcuffed and everyone has diarrhoea in the humidity and sweating and so on, there were very decisive and antagonistic moments. But I wanted to follow the story of Dieter Dengler. With him the film begins and ends, and it’s his story. It’s a basic problem about storytelling. Yes, if I had known every single one of the prisoners intimately, and had gotten each of their stories, I probably would have ended up with five different variations of the story. So for me it was always clear that I’d do Dieter Dengler’s perspective. And yet Gene DeBruin’s family is unhappy about it and angered and has started an internet campaign. And OK, that’s alright. They see him differently than I see him. But I think they have not gotten any of the details that I have gotten from Dieter Dengler. And these things happen. Yes, someone may be unhappy with how one character is portrayed. You run into that, and it’s fine. And it’s absolutely legitimate that they raise their voices and explain that they see it differently.
What do you think it was about Dieter that made him such a survivor?
WH: That’s a complicated arrangement in his inner make-up. I think he had all the qualities I like in Americans – that is, this kind of frontier spirit, optimism and loyalty, and joy of physically tackling things. Loyalty in a very intensive way – he was one of the very few prisoners of war who did not sign the propaganda declaration denouncing the United States. He kept saying, “America gave me wings. I came to America not just to earn a lot of money, but I came with a big dream. And there it was possible. And I would not denounce this country.” And of course it was in the very early days of the Vietnam War when you didn’t have napalm bombing or Mai Lai or things that make it so hard to understand what was going on. He was a very unique man, with great street wisdom, great survival instincts and also the gift of leadership.
He’s almost like a mythical hero.
WH: At the same time, I’m sure audiences sense that there’s an authentic story behind it. It’s not invented. Everything is detailed in a way that’s how it happened. Of course I modified a few things, but only to give an essence of it. For example, Dieter Dengler was actually kidnapped by his buddies and smuggled back to the aircraft carrier after he was rescued. As far as I remember he was hoisted out through a window and then they ran to the helicopter. And I found it much more Dieter-like to have him hidden under a cake, so to speak. Actually the cake is gone by then, but the tablecloth is somehow covering the table as they wheel him out. So yes, modification, but it gives more the essence of what Dieter would do.
What do you think this film says about the Vietnam War?
WH: It’s not a Vietnam film. It’s a survival film in the jungles, it’s a film about friendship. The war doesn’t factor in the movie, nor in Dieter’s life. The war was over for him 40 minutes into it – 40 minutes into his first mission he was shot down. And back in 1965 the Vietnam War was just starting to settle in. There was an escalation and de-escalation. It hadn’t found its magnitude and its significance yet. I never saw it as a war movie or as a Vietnam movie, so it doesn’t settle in with any other Vietnam War movies. And besides, it was Laos, which wasn’t quite part of the whole campaign.
The jungle is extremely authentic.
WH: It’s very physical. I’ve never seen anyone filming the jungle like I’ve done it. I do have quite some experience in jungles with other films, but in this case I wanted to make it more physical than all the others before. It’s partly about what sort of spot in the jungle you are selecting. Sometimes we’d drive around and we’d all of a sudden see a solid wall of vines and underbrush, and you literally cannot imagine that a human being can penetrate into that wall. And we’d stop and say, “Let’s go through that one!” With the cameraman right after them. The cameraman was very, very physical – a former ice hockey player for Sparta Prague – a very physical man. And of course you can’t do SteadyCam, because it’s a very delicately balanced instrument, and if you bounce against a liana or twig the whole system comes apart. Sometimes we use a helicopter or crane. But when they escape, of course the camera is with them quite a bit, and we see that this is serious business. And audiences can distinguish that this is not a picnic. Or a digital jungle.
The film is shot in rich colours, rather than the grainy, washed out style of current action films.
WH: It had to have the real quality of celluloid. We shot on a very large celluloid frame – they call it Super 35, where you use quite a large amount of the celluloid, more than regular shooting. So the technical quality is much higher than in regular 35mm shooting. And authenticity does not come through the pretext of grainy image or digital video. It comes from somewhere else.
How did you cast the prison guards in the film?
WH: Most of them are people from hill tribes that you would find in Laos and Burma. Most of the guards were stunt men. You see the little one, Crazy Horse, who does the flips so well, I said, “You have to do it in the movie!” Otherwise they were just the people from the villages there, very well-selected and carefully cast. I liked them all, including the dog! That was very precisely organised, and I don’t know how many times I shot that – I shot until the dog walked into the shot on his hind legs. Those are the joys of daily work!
This has been described as your first American film.
WH: Well it’s not the first; Grizzly Man is pretty much also American. But you see, both Grizzly Man and Rescue Dawn are not films within the cultural definition of the film industry – it’s not Hollywood. Hollywood would never have gone for, for example, that casting. They wouldn’t have allowed me to have Steve Zahn. The producers were absolutely the contrary of Hollywood: the main producer had made most of his money in the trucking business, and is running nightclubs now, and the other producer who put most of the finances into it is a basketball star who never had any experience with filmmaking. Which in a way was a blessing because I could do absolutely the film I wanted to do. On the other hand, it was awful every single day because they didn’t know how to handle the shooting of a film. In particular there was always financial trouble; they never had the finances in place when it was needed most badly. So one day over 30 Thai crew quit because they were not paid in time, and the transportation department didn’t get any money for buying gasoline. So as a filmmaker I had to make something out of a disaster. In the morning at 6: no transportation department, and I still kept shooting that day. And I finished the film two days under schedule.
The German film industry is enjoying a renaissance. Will you go back to make a film there?
WH: I’m married in America, so I’ll probably stay. But of course I made my last film in Antarctica, the film before in Alaska, the film before in Guyana in South America. So I’ve made very few films in Germany, and it’s not necessary that I have to go back to my country. In a way, Rescue Dawn is a very Bavarian film – the spirit of Dieter Dengler, even though he’s the quintessential American immigrant, he’s very much from the culture he comes from. And I’ve never left my culture. For example, [Wolfgang] Petersen and [Roland] Emmerich always wanted to make Hollywood films, and they got their dream. They make very successful Hollywood films, which I have never done. I’ve left my country, but I’ve not left my culture. In the same way, you shouldn’t be worried why George Lucas is going to the outer galaxy to make a movie. He’s still making a film within his culture; he’s making an American film. I go to Thailand or the Peruvian jungle, the Amazon, and I still make Bavarian films. Fitzcarraldo is a Bavarian film, and so in a way is Rescue Dawn.