Directors like to think of themselves as adventurers: taking big-budget risks, leading actors and technicians into the artistic unknown, often shooting in faraway locations. But no filmmaker can match Werner Herzog for inspiring recklessness. The German director's movie sojourns take him not just to remote corners of Peru, Alaska and Thailand but also to the uncharted interior of man's highest, most lunatic dreams. In a 46-year career of great fiction films (Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Heart of Glass; Nosferatu; Fitzcarraldo) and in a string of amazing, hallucinatory documentaries (The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, The White Diamond, Grizzly Man), Herzog, 64, has trekked into the emotional wilderness to capture on film humanity's heart of darkness, heart of hope.
His stature as his generation's most daring, most distinctive filmmaker and one of its signature eccentrics does not automatically endear Herzog to Hollywood. Though estimable actors from Claudia Cardinale to Tim Roth have graced his films and though in the late '70s he had a project (Fitzcarraldo) that was to be produced by Francis Ford Coppola and star Jack Nicholson, Herzog knows that in the U.S. the big-money guys are as averse to risk as he is addicted to it.
So it's a treat to see that his latest film, Rescue Dawn, has a kind-of star and a real actor, Christian (Batman) Bale, in the lead role and is being released by MGM/UA. The financing came from an unusual source: a company headed by NBA power forward Elton Brand and a nightclub impresario. Not exactly the most experienced cadre of producers.
But the chances Herzog takes on finances are nothing compared with his directorial appetite for catastrophe. Telling him something's impossible is like inviting Paris Hilton to a party. He'll be on the next flight to Doomsville, as when he read that a volcano was to erupt on Guadeloupe; off he went to tempt death and came back with the spectacular documentary La Soufrière. On the Amazon epic Fitzcarraldo, he took his crew hundreds of miles from the nearest city and had them lug a 320-ton riverboat overland and up steep hills. He found a suitably lush location on the Amazon and ran into the longest dry spell in the region's history. "I shouldn't make movies anymore," he said in Les Blank's documentary Burden of Dreams. "I should go to a lunatic asylum. This is not what a man should do with his life."
But he keeps doing it, and keeps demanding nearly as much of his actors as of himself. He hypnotized the actors in Heart of Glass. He cast Bruno S., who had spent decades in mental institutions, as the star of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek. When Nicholson backed out of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog got Jason Robards, who contracted amoebic dysentery and was forced to quit the shoot. (Mick Jagger, another member of the cast, also had to leave.) Herzog wound up with Klaus Kinski, an actor so extreme and unruly, he was his own volcano. They made five films together; Herzog's memoir movie about Kinski is called My Best Fiend.
Bale isn't nuts like Kinski, but he has the insane dedication Herzog asks of his performers; he lost 55 lbs. for his role in Rescue Dawn. The movie is a remake, in a way, of Herzog's 1997 documentary Little Dieter Loves to Fly, about a German boy, Dieter Dengler, whose home in the Black Forest was bombed by U.S. planes; he caught a glimpse of the pilot, "like a vision ... like an imaginary being," and decided that he wanted to fly--a theme in many Herzog docs. Dengler went to the U.S., joined the Navy and was shot down over Laos in 1966. He endured dreadful torture as a POW, escaped with a friend (played by Steve Zahn) and was finally rescued.
Rescue Dawn hasn't quite the intensity or veracity of Little Dieter. Somehow, hearing Dengler testify to the atrocities he survived is more vivid than watching an excellent cast re-enact them. But the Herzog team's devotion to the horror of the story, and to Dengler's unkillable spirit, is gratifying. Rescue Dawn is a tale of heroism untainted by political skepticism. In an age when U.S. soldiers are seen as villains or victims, the movie offers a GI who bravely, or madly, simply refuses to die.
Herzog is another of those extraordinary creatures. He wants to fly blind and see clearly. That way a man can make art as strange or twisted or ennobling as the lives of the people he puts into his remarkable movies.