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Little Dieter Flies Again
In ‘Rescue Dawn,’ Werner Herzog revisits one of his most amazing subjects

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Little Dieter Flies Again
In ‘Rescue Dawn,’ Werner Herzog revisits one of his most amazing subjects


Photo by Lena Herzog
~ Downward, Christian Soldier ~

here are important documentarians – Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield – who occasionally make dramatic features; and important makers of dramatic features – Spike Lee, Sydney Pollack – who occasionally make documentaries. But Werner Herzog may be the only major filmmaker whose career has been split almost 50/50 between the two forms.

The story of Vietnam-era POW Dieter Dengler is the first subject Herzog has treated in both manners. In 1997, the director made the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly; and July 4 will see the release of his adventure film Rescue Dawn, with Christian Bale playing Dengler, and Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies his fellow prisoners.

Dengler, born in Germany, became obsessed with flying after seeing Allied planes bomb his village. Since becoming a military pilot was impossible in postwar Germany, he moved to the U.S. as soon as he was old enough and joined the Navy. On his very first mission – a secret, illegal bombing raid over Laos – he was shot down and caught by Pathet Lao troops. When torture failed to convince him to sign a statement condemning the U.S., he was thrown into a tiny POW camp. He eventually escaped, and his survival and rescue in the Laotian jungle was miraculous.

I recently interviewed Herzog about his twin Dengler films.

CityBeat: How did you come across Dieter in the first place?

Werner Herzog: I had an offer to do a documentary for German TV, but, when I found Dieter Dengler living north of San Francisco, it was always clear that this was a story for a big feature film, a big epic; he was a larger-than-life character. But the money was in place for the documentary, so we did that first. The approaches are quite different, because the documentary also deals with his childhood and with the years after his ordeal in Laos. Plus you have a different narrative form. But common to both films is that I am looking for a deeper form of truth, sort of an illumination, an ecstatic truth. That is something you would sense both in the so-called documentary and in Rescue Dawn.

So you were talking to Dieter back then about a fictional film? If he were still alive, how do think he would react to Rescue Dawn?

It’s impossible to know, but Dieter and I became very close, and he always knew what I was about in doing the big feature film, so I think he would not have been disappointed. I’m sure he would not have been.

But it took a while to get him to sign a contract for the rights in his life story. He said, “How much is in it for me? How many millions can I get for the rights?” And I said, “Dieter, come on. Let’s be realistic. There are not millions for you in it. It’s not like making Harry Potter into a movie.” He understood finally that, yes, this was a film where he, as the provider of the story and the personality, would not get millions right up front.

We had some very funny, funny times together. I was always very clear in what I was interested in, and we always had a very clear concordance of heart.

How did Dieter get to be so tough?

Just imagine you are growing up in a country where the 700 major cities are laid completely to waste, like Ground Zero in New York, but entire cities. And the starving so extreme that your mother would have the children rip the wallpaper from the walls of bombed-out buildings, so she could cook it because there were nutrients in the glue. That’s the background that prepared him, made him self-reliant and courageous … made him into what he ultimately was.

Dieter had such amazing optimism. Wouldn’t that sort of negative childhood have the opposite effect?

I wouldn’t call it a negative childhood. You have a negative childhood if you grow up in a dysfunctional household, with both parents drug addicts and violence in the family. Dieter … both Dieter and I … had a beautiful kind of childhood, even though the hardships were palpable for both of us.

You shot the documentary in the late ’90s, and we see no sign of the ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) that killed him in 2001.

It had not hit him yet. It came very abruptly. He fought back. He took it in a very manly way, but it destroyed him fairly quickly. It’s such a destructive, terrible disease. What was really awful is that, in most cases with Lou Gehrig’s, you lose speech first. I said to Dieter, “What an outrage: the two greatest rappers I know on this planet, Muhammad Ali and you, are speechless now.” And he would immediately tell me a joke with signs and gestures, but speechless … a dirty joke … and we would roll on the floor in laughter.

Did you have Christian Bale look at the documentary, or avoid looking at it?

He saw the documentary, and I was quite clear with him that we didn’t have to imitate every one of Dieter’s mannerisms. For example, Dieter had a heavy accent, but we reduced that to almost zero. You have to be much more precise if you make a film on Muhammad Ali. If you have an actor playing Muhammad Ali, Ali cannot speak with a German accent. But generally in a feature film, you’re a storyteller for the big screen: You do not become the accountant of facts.

On screen, we see Bale shrink from a healthy soldier to a near-skeleton. I’m assuming you had to shut down production once or twice for him to lose another 30 pounds.

No, no, completely wrong. Losing weight would take five or six months the way he lost it. And of course we had only 44 days to shoot to the film. He and the others – Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies – lost a good amount of weight beforehand. It takes a half a year to lose the weight, but you can regain it in three weeks, so we shot the film backwards. It’s a huge challenge for actors and also, I may add, for the director, because you have to develop a character backwards, and that’s not easy.

Are there any other of your documentaries that you’ve thought about remaking as fiction films? All through Grizzly Man, I was thinking, “Boy, is Owen Wilson ready to play that part!”

If I had the right actor, I would be tempted. It’s a very complex role, very complex character. It would be fascinating. But I do believe that the real Timothy Treadwell cannot be outdone by any actor.

One last thing: You played yourself in Zak Penn’s Incident at Loch Ness, which I thought was hilarious, and it looked like you were having a wonderful time.

Yes. People always think I’m this fanatical, serious guy, but sometimes an amount of self-irony is quite welcome and helpful.

Rescue Dawn. Written and directed by Werner Herzog. With Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, and Jeremy Davies. Opens July 4.


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