Werner Herzog on Rescue Dawn: The RT Interview

The controversial and almost mythological helmer tells us about his latest.

by Rich Cline | Monday, Nov. 19 2007

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.

Rescue Dawn

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!

Rescue Dawn

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.