Herzog hero-worship is understandable. He has the charisma of man who has really interesting stories to tell – like when he tackled grizzly bears in Alaska, or when he contracted tropical diseases in the Amazon, or when he swam under ice in Antarctica. He also has the dangerous magnetism of a guy who gets into mad adventures - like when he ate his shoe after a bet, or when he jumped from a fourth floor window as a dare, or when he was shot by an unknown assailant during a TV interview, or when he saved Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck. The director's gravitas is compounded by a statesman-like glare and a sonorous speaking voice that sits you down and makes you listen. Before he walked off chattering with Korine, we got a chance to listen to Herzog talk about his film Rescue Dawn, which comes out in the UK next week...
Rescue Dawn is P.O.W. prison break movie where Christian Bale stars as Dieter Dengler, the US soldier shot down over Laos in 1965 and captured by the Viet Cong. He was imprisoned in a jungle torture camp where, along with other US soldiers, he was chained to an ants’ nest, left to sleep in his own excrement and fed only maggots. After 6 months, Dengler escaped from the prison and survived for three weeks in the bush by eating bugs and snakes before being rescued by a passing US patrol plane and returning to America. The dialogue may be a bit patchy in parts, but that is overcome by the way Herzog uses his camera as a machete, dragging viewers deep into jungle thicket like you've never seen before.
VICE: I have never seen anyone film the jungle like you have. It felt like I was grappling through the vines, neck-deep in leeches.
The audience can distinguish that this is not a technical trick, not a digital jungle. You can see that this is serious. I have experience in the jungle. In this case, I wanted to make it more physical. We’d drive around and then all of a sudden we’d see a solid wall of vines and thorns and underbrush where you cannot imagine that a human being could penetrate. So then we’d stop and go for it. Our cameraman was a very, very physical man – a former ice-hockey player for Sparta Prague.
How did you get the actors to make the film more authentic?
Christian Bale always knew that I would offer to do the things I asked of the actors. For example, when they were in the rapids I spent all day with them in the water. I offered to eat a couple of spoonfuls of maggots. In solidarity [with Bale] I lost half the amount of weight that he lost. Christian always said, “For God’s sake, let’s not make a big fuss about the weight loss.” He did not want to end up in the The Guinness Book of Records for starving himself. Of course, in The Machinist he lost much more. But what we did was significant and it is visible to the audience. By the end of the film he really has lost a lot of weight (55 lbs). But let’s not make a big deal about it. It only shows his amount of dedication and professionalism. Christian is the best of his generation.
Some critics say your so-called non-fiction method is misleading because you stylise your plot and your characters.
I am sure that audiences sense that there is an authentic story behind it. It’s not invented. Every single detail, in a way, is how it happened. Of course, I modified quite a few things. But modified in a way to give the essence of it. To give more of an essence of what Dieter would do.
What do you make of the online campaign started by the families of the other soldiers imprisoned with Dieter Dengler who are angry about your portrayal of their relatives?
I understand that the family of Eugene DeBruin see him differently to the way I see him. That’s their right. It’s absolutely legitimate that they raise their voices and explain that they see him differently. But I think they didn’t get the details that I got from Dieter Dengler (expanded upon in the 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly). Yes, someone may be unhappy about a character is portrayed…
But they’re not characters, they’re real people and they're angry that you made them appear crazed and cowardly.
Forty years ago, before he went to South East Asia, apparently Eugene DeBruin was a very kind, sweet, family man. However, Dieter Dengler describes him very precisely, over and over. After more than two years in medieval foot-blocks, with diarrhoea, cross-handcuffed with others, there was a fair amount of delusion in him where he thought he would be released within a week. Dieter told me quite often that there were conflicts among the prisoners. He passes by this very fleetingly in the documentary, saying that sometimes they had disagreements. Right after that, he said “Werner, 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.” And it’s absolutely understandable: being cross-handcuffed for two years, where everyone has diarrhoea, in the humidity and sweating, there was bound to be very decisive and antagonistic moments.
I also wanted to follow the story of Dieter Dengler, with whom the film begins and ends. It’s his story. It’s a basic problem about storytelling. Yes, if I had known every single one of the prisoners intimately and gotten their story, I probably would’ve ended up with five different variations of the story. So for me it was always clear that I was telling Dieter Dengler’s perspective.
What was it about his character that got Dieter Dengler through all this?
That’s a complicated arrangement in his inner makeup. A very unique man with great street wisdom and great survival instincts. He had a joy of physically tackling things. Also, the gift of leadership.
* Rescue Dawn is released in the UK on November 23