“Filmmaking is athletics over aesthetics,” Werner Herzog once said, and his astonishing body of work suggests a director with the physical and psychological fortitude of an ironman triathlete. He landed in a brutal Cameroon prison while chasing desert mirages for Fata Morgana (1970), traveled to a volcanic Caribbean island on the brink of explosion in La Soufrière (1977), and persuaded his crew to drag a steamboat over a mountain in the Amazon for Fitzcarraldo (1982). More recently, he pondered the awful fate of self-styled eco-warrior Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man (2005). The filmmaker’s attraction to extremes—of climate, circumstance, and human endurance—reaches an apex in the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), which followed the former U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler back to the Laotian jungle where he made a miraculous escape from a POW camp during the American war with Vietnam.
Herzog now revisits the harrowing Little Dieter story with the feature film Rescue Dawn, shot in northwest Thailand and starring Christian Bale as Dengler, who survived a plane crash, torture, and starvation before he was rescued in 1966. To watch the two films back-to-back is not only to soak up Herzog’s epic fascination with the cruelties of man and nature, but also to rediscover how nimbly his films elude easy categorization in their pursuit of what he calls “ecstatic truth.” That is to say: There is fiction, there is nonfiction, and then there is Herzog.
Dengler, who died in 2001, is a subject particularly close to the filmmaker’s heart. Both men were born in Hitler’s Germany and grew up cold, hungry, and fatherless amid what Herzog calls in Little Dieter a “dreamscape of the surreal.” Dengler started on his improbable path to Laos during an Allied bombing raid on his family’s Black Forest village: One plane swept so close to the ground that the young boy briefly, fatefully, made eye contact with the pilot. “From that moment on,” Dengler tells the camera, “little Dieter needed to fly.”
This split second of epiphany belongs wholly to Dengler, but Little Dieter is also full of flourishes of Herzog’s own devising. In one scene, Dengler repeatedly opens and closes the front door of his home, a simple task that he says took on great significance after his months of captivity. But what appears to be a post-traumatic ritual was actually Herzog’s idea, as he later revealed. This was “a scene I created from what [Dengler] had casually mentioned to me, that after his experiences in the jungle he truly appreciated the feeling of being able to open a door whenever he wanted to,” he explains to Paul Cronin in the book Herzog on Herzog.
Herzog also staged the opening scene of Little Dieter, when Dengler visits a tattoo parlor and comments on a design of Death driving a team of horses, and later places Dengler before a tank of jellyfish and gives him the line, “This is basically what death looks like to me.” “He had to become an actor playing himself,” the director says in Herzog on Herzog. “Everything in the film is authentic Dieter, but to intensify him it is all re-orchestrated, scripted, and rehearsed.”
British filmmaker John Grierson called documentary “the creative treatment of actuality.” This elastic definition is useful when considering the many liberties Herzog takes in Little Dieter and other docs—in Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), he supplied Fini Straubinger, the film’s deaf-blind subject, with scripted lines and fictitious childhood memories. These kinds of embellishments, Herzog maintains, push past the factual—what he calls “a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants”—and into a realm where a film can illuminate an entire inner world rather than merely reproduce external realities.
Naysayers might dismiss Herzog’s talk of “ecstatic truth” as merely a pretense for distorting the truth. Yet, just as Herzog gives his documentaries fictional elements, he also injects his features with doses of documentary. In Rescue Dawn, Bale, who is no stranger to the outer limits of the Method, visibly wastes away from scene to scene. Performing Dengler’s light German accent as a kind of off-kilter Brooklynese (“What da hell is dis, da Middle Ages?”), he chomps on live bugs and performs his own stunts, which run from being dragged on the ground by a water buffalo to a mudslide launch with co-star Steve Zahn. As Herzog told The New Yorker last year, “The audience always feels when it’s fake.” Evidently, Herzog’s definition of fake does not rest on the question, “Did it happen for real?” but rather, “Did it happen for real in front of my camera?”
Given the creative license Herzog uses in his documentaries, one might expect that Rescue Dawn would play faster and looser with the historical record than even a typical Hollywood biopic. Yet this “Incredible True Story” (per the trailer) is more interesting for what it leaves out than for what it changes or exaggerates. In Little Dieter, Dengler speaks in thrilling detail about a vision of his father that appeared to him during his escape; he remembers the bear that followed him when he was near death; he recounts an unforgettably gruesome episode involving the theft of his engagement ring and its eventual recovery (with the robber’s finger still attached). None of these sensational events are recreated in Rescue Dawn. The film’s middle section transpires within the Pathet Lao camp where Dengler was held hostage, focusing for long stretches on the pain and misery of prisoner life and the resentments festering between the sick, famished inmates (including a skeletal Jeremy Davies). In these scenes, Rescue Dawn has more affinities with the real-time rhythms and textures of cinéma vérité (a concept Herzog detests) than its documentary counterpart.
Compared to Little Dieter, however, Rescue Dawn somewhat understates the suffering of the prisoners, and Herzog omits the worst torments that Dengler endured at the hands of his captors. Clearly, Herzog doesn’t wish to make a fetish out of the prisoners’ woes or turn Rescue Dawn (which is rated PG-13) into a horror piece. This is refreshing, as it directly opposes the default position of most Hollywood war pictures that put a premium on “realism,” measured in just how much physical agony and viscera they can fling onto the screen.
For a man who will risk anything for cinema (and who sometimes expects his colleagues to do the same), Herzog has a surprisingly strong sense of directorial etiquette. “[T]here is a certain indiscretion if you move too close into a face,” he says in Herzog on Herzog. “Close-ups give a feeling of intrusion; they are almost a personal violation of the actor, and they also destroy the privacy of the viewer’s solitude.” An important element of Herzog’s ecstatic truth is to allow the audience the solitude to think and dream, to draw their own connections and reach their own private epiphanies.
One of the best scenes in Rescue Dawn is a quiet one, when Bale-as-Dengler remembers that moment when his childhood self locked eyes with the Allied pilot, in much the same words that Dengler-as-Dengler uses in Little Dieter. For some viewers, another movie memory of another aviation-obsessed kid will come to mind: Jim in Empire of the Sun (1987), exulting in the arrival of Allied planes and making stunned eye contact with a pilot. Jim, of course, was played by 13-year-old Christian Bale, starring in a film that was itself a creative treatment of actuality—an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel about his imprisonment by the Japanese as a boy during World War II. I’m not sure what a cinematic ecstasy of truth looks like, exactly, but it might be found in these echoes and superimpositions of multiple childhoods and memories, both factual and fictionalized. Together, they create something that—like many of Herzog’s films—is neither one thing nor the other: both familiar and new, both real and dreamlike.