2007Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Christian Bale, Jeremy Davies, Steve Zahn
erzog’s films have always centered on the madness derived from chaos and hubristic desire. He prefers those protagonists who, through their own lust for some lofty goal be it fame, fortune, or a more abstract ideal—lose touch with reality and find themselves adrift in a sea of insanity. Despite his rather grim outlook on our own ability to survive, he always manages to uncover the fleeting moments of beauty in the insanity that drives his heroes.
In some ways, his decision to film a dramatic rendition of his 1998 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly positions Herzog as a character in one of his own films. Driven by his own lofty desires to accurately retell the story of Dieter Dengler’s internment in a POW camp after being shot down during a secret bombing mission over Laos, his judgments appear motivated by that inclination toward chaos. At the very least, his preference to cast Christian Bale and Steve Zahn in the starring roles mockingly invites it. In all fairness, it seems like a typically Herzogian maneuver. He’s always been a director who works best while teetering on the edge of disaster. How else could one justify his continued willingness to work with an actor as insane as Klaus Kinski?
But a bold move doesn’t necessarily constitute an auspicious one and his decision to go with a recognizable Hollywood star in the film’s central role already threatened to undo his precious film before it even got of the ground. Imagine how much Fitzcarraldo would have suffered had production stayed on schedule allowing Mick Jagger and Jason Robards to retain their starring roles.
Strangely, the unusual casting selections by Herzog defy expectations and actually provide one of the stronger elements in Rescue Dawn. Bale, Zahn and Jeremy Davies play their parts with uncompromising, if restrained, ferocity, hitting the perfect pitch of sullen misery needed to maintain the level of despair pervasive throughout the film’s screenplay. Seeing Zahn slip into his role with such conviction is almost frightening, considering the last film I saw him in was Saving Silverman. I can understand why Herzog wanted him for this part; with his piercing blue eyes hidden beneath a grizzled visage he bears a striking resemblance to Kinski, and certainly evokes that same sense of brooding madness.
The fact that the actors went as far as sacrificing their own health while engrossing themselves wholly into the dismal position imposed upon their characters suggests their level of commitment to Herzog’s vision. The passion they must have felt for the material is visibly apparent, you can read it in their frail, worn-down bodies. Davies, in fact, appears so terribly emaciated that I wonder if a doctor were on hand during shooting in the event that he were to faint.
This excessive bid toward realism makes Herzog’s tale of war and survival supremely convincing. In some regards Herzog’s dramatic recreation of the events carries more authenticity than the actual story as told by Dengler in Herzog’s documentary. This is due in large part to the meticulous pacing of Rescue Dawn as well as its faux-documentary style. Oh, and let’s not forget its grand locations. Nobody shoots settings quite like Herzog. Although a vast majority of his films take place in the depths of a jungle environment, Herzog endows these callous settings with individual personalities that mirror the madness of the characters trapped within them. The Laotian jungles of Rescue Dawn set a backdrop to Dengler’s despair as he travels on a seemingly impossible quest toward salvation. The winding jungle maintains that madness central to the film, and provides a mesmerizing focus to the events even if the screenplay takes some questionable detours.
Curiously, while Rescue Dawn feels like a Herzog film in spirit—it follows the blueprint of madness and hubris established by Aguirre, Fitzcaraldo and even Grizzly Man—at it’s at it’s center it feels oddly shallow, empty; as if it were the work of a student of Herzog who understood the technique but not the meaning. For a director who carries with him such an esteemed reputation, Herzog makes more than a few blunders that I would have expected from a less-seasoned director. Beyond ending his film with a goofy freeze frame and scrolling text that would be more fitting in a made-for-television movie, his dialogue at times sounds extremely stilted, lacking the relaxed flow needed to suggest the realistic conversation among soldiers. It comes across as the product of someone with a rudimentary understanding of the English language and no ability to discern between overwrought sincerity and clever sarcasm, not the work of the man responsible for some of the greatest films of post-war German cinema.
Consider a scene in which Dieter is asked by a Vietnamese official to sign a document that asks him to renounce his government. The whole exchange reeks of a sickening sort of patriotism. Not that love for one’s own country should be viewed as an unpleasant prospect, but as portrayed here it feels more cringe-inducing than inspiring. These same tendencies become further amplified in the extended coda to the film. This contrived finale serves as a crippling blow to whatever respectability Herzog conjured up to this point. He directs this crowd-pleasing culmination seemingly unaware of how to end his film, pouring on the melodrama in thick syrupy doses until the audience chokes on the good cheer. Not that a downbeat ending would have remained true to Dieter’s actual story, but surely a director as gifted as Herzog could have framed it better than he ultimately did.
Most of this can be overlooked in light of the beauty and expertise of Herzog’s direction and Peter Zeitlinger’s stunning cinematography. The film is beautiful in patches, confident in its overall themes, but far too inconsistent to be truly grand. If one could trim the fat from this film, what you’d be left with is another classic Herzog film. In its present state, it’s nothing more than a curious, if slightly compelling, footnote to his long and brilliant career.
Rescue Dawn is currently playing in limited release.