Sunday, July 15, 2007

Werner Herzog's rumble in the jungle

Summary: German director Werner Herzog has made a movie in which yet another hero pits his will and cunning against history and nature.

I once rode on a ski lift with Werner Herzog, conducting an interview as our feet dangled perilously over the edge of an open chair on which we were secured by only a leather strap that lay loosely across our laps. It took about 20 minutes to reach the top of the mountain, so the ride presented an ideal opportunity for an interview. If Herzog didn't respond to my questions, he at least couldn't get up and leave.

This combination interview and adventure in vertigo took place in the waning days of the summer of 1982 -- Labor Day weekend to be precise -- at the Telluride Film Festival, where Herzog had become something of a regular.

Herzog had come to Telluride to screen "Fitzcarraldo," a movie that I'm not sure anyone watches much anymore. I don't remember much about the interview aside from the fact that Herzog described the jungles of Peru, where he shot his film, as "obscene." He seemed repelled by the overgrown jungle lushness which suggested life in some rampant, sickeningly effusive form. In the jungle, birds didn't croon, they shriek, perhaps echoing some natural state of horror.

"Fitzcarraldo" --the making of which was brilliantly chronicled in Les Blank's documentary "Burden of Dreams" -- tells the story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, a man who attempted to build an opera house in the midst of the Peruvian jungle. Fitzgerald's epic scheme led him to employ Indian labor in an attempt to drag an enormous boat over a small mountain. This Herculean folly, reproduced in excruciating detail by Herzog, surely must have driven Herzog's "special" actor, Klaus Kinski, to near madness.

I've often wondered whether Herzog, a filmmaker for whom movies and physical risk seem inseparable, isn't happy unless he comes close to killing off his actors. That thought recurred, like a long harbored suspicion, as I watched "Rescue Dawn," an adventure that Herzog adapted from his 1997 documentary, "Little Dieter Needs to Fly."

Dieter Dengler (the main character in both the documentary and in "Rescue Dawn") was a German-born pilot who joined the U.S. Air Force and found himself shot down over Laos in the early days of the Vietnam War. Dengler was taken prisoner by the Pathet Lao, who held him in a small camp. An enterprising and irrepressible fellow, Dengler plotted his escape from the minute he arrived in a camp where he and his fellow prisoners (Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies) were tormented by cruel guards and taunted by a forbidding jungle that seemed to mock the very idea of escape.

But Dengler didn't give up. He pressed on with his plans, and eventually managed to break from the jungle prison to which he never submitted. The path to ultimate victory was marked by lots of smaller triumphs, many of which the movie details. Dengler discovered, for example, how to unlock the stocks in which he and his fellow prisoners were shackled at night. He emerged as a leader who never allowed the wheels of his cunning to stop turning.

"Rescue Dawn" provides Herzog with a chance to pay tribute to Dengler's ingenuity and once again to rumble in the jungle. On its surface, "Rescue Dawn" has the pulse -- and the screwy romanticism -- of a straightforward adventure story, and for some, it represents a sellout on Herzog's part: Detractors say Herzog's gone Hollywood by making a movie that should be right at home in any multiplex.

It's not an altogether spurious argument, but it's also not entirely fair. In addition to being a compelling story in traditional ways, "Rescue Dawn" is also an unusually harsh chronicle of man's battle against dual enemies: the cruelty of his fellows and the unruly forces of nature -- in the form of the Laotian jungle. (The movie actually was shot in Thailand.) Herzog's heroes may embrace the idea of adventure, but they're hardly at home in the world, and, like Dengler, they must use every ounce of their intelligence to survive. Their enthusiasms can border on madness, which (at least to Herzog) seems to be a good thing.

Bale, who lost ridiculous amounts of weight to play an insomniac metal worker in "The Machinist" and who went gleefully over the top as a smiling serial killer in "American Psycho," has become the screen's number one, all-immersion actor. With a trace of German accent, Bale creates an intrepid character, a sort of spiritual Energizer Bunny who won't quit, can't quit, must not quit.

Initially, I was surprised that Herzog had made a Vietnam movie sans a political point of view. I probably shouldn't have been. Herzog's evidently not interested in opining about the rightness or wrongness of the American cause in Southeast Asia. Maybe that's typical of him. If you were to judge by "Rescue Dawn," Herzog does not view history as something that affords men an opportunity to define themselves in moral terms. Like the jungle, it's one more "obscene" backdrop against which the courageous test themselves; it's something to be survived and perhaps outwitted, never tamed.

Thus, the nutty romanticism of Werner Herzog: The risk for the artist and pilot is the same or at least parallel. Each embarks on a journey and each might vanish in the jungle, never to return to tell their stories. Put another way, I suppose the worse thing you could say to someone such as Herzog, an artist who thrives on the exhilaration of hardship, would be, "Hey, man, it's only a movie."

"Rescue Dawn,'' which had its premiere at last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and opens around the country beginning Friday.

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