It’s all about love.
I went to a screening of Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn fighting off one of those desperately lonely, uncertain states we all find ourselves in at times. Two hours later, I came out of the theater flying, simply too in love with life to fret over some ground-level personal nonsense. Herzog’s film about torture and starvation is the feel-good movie of the summer.
Rescue Dawn, which opens July 4, draws from the true story of Dieter Dengler, the German-American fighter pilot shot down and captured in Laos in 1966. Dengler eventually got his fellow prisoners to assist in an escape that at first seemed impossible and pointless. In 1966, it was still possible to believe that an end to the Vietnam War was in sight—better to sit out the war in a prison camp until the anticipated American victory ensured their release. Dieter seemed to know better.
But Rescue Dawn doesn’t care much for politics. It’s really a love story in disguise, and the object of its protagonist’s ardor is… what, exactly? Flight? Military service? The United States of America? Yes, yes, yes. And also: dogs that can walk on two legs, Laotian thugs with bad teeth, midgets, snails, home cooking, incontinence, Jeremy Davies’s weirdness, nicknames, smiles, leeches… This is Herzog in the madly embracing spirit of his other great “American” film, Stroszek. (Anyone who watches Rescue Dawn and has also seen the maternity ward and “chicken dance” scenes in Stroszek should dig where I’m coming from.) Rescue Dawn is about a man whose soul has no room for fear because it is too full of l-o-v- e.
Captured German-American pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), also the subject of Herzog’s 1997 documentary Little Deiter Needs to Fly, doesn’t flinch when his Viet Cong interrogator prods him to sign a statement denouncing the U.S., to facilitate his release: “No way. I can’t sign this. America gave me wings.” The romance of this moment made my heart skip the same beat it did when the lovers in Brief Encounter finally cut the small talk and looked each other square in the misty eye. As explained in Little Dieter, Dengler’s dream since childhood was to become a pilot. America became his adopted homeland at 18 after a youth in Germany marked by WWII traumas, and her Navy endowed him with those “wings.” His apparent bravery before the V.C. is nothing more than gratitude—not the jingoistic kind you might expect here, but the emboldening gratefulness a lonely man feels when fortune graces him with a family. Think of all the men who have said to their lovers, wives or children, “I’d take a bullet for you.” That isn’t valor; that’s a valentine.
As usual, Herzog’s valentine comes in two rich, complementary layers. One one level, he dramatizes how Dengler feeds his fearlessness and optimism with camaraderie. Daydreaming, joking and bullshitting with prisoners and guards alike pull him through seasons of torture and starvation in a Laos prison camp. Even as he wastes away to a skeletal frame, his people skills never wane. It’s no less disorienting a spectacle than Klaus Kinski babbling to monkeys on a raft. Meanwhile, Herzog’s storytelling expresses infatuated communion with his madman/muse, and awe at the world that shaped him. The filmmaker who tends to see “chaos, hostility and murder” virtually everywhere (but especially in nature) puts his pessimism in rewarding context here: The world is insane with predatory evil, but it is just as on fire with truth and beauty. It’s gonna be a photo finish.
Herzog’s screen megalomaniacs all want to build something or reach some height. Yet, while those indelible Kinski loons (Don Lope de Aguirre, Brian “Fitzcarrldo” Fitzgerald, Cobra Verde) may have had grand visions, they were ultimately sick with cruelty and dominance. Herzog has matured (though some of his disappointed fanboys-n-girls would say “softened”) beyond the Kinski fireworks show, embracing heroes who are more like him—self-immolating artist-daredevils like Walter Steiner (his first flying “Dieter”) and quixotic, child-like protectors like Bruno S. and Timothy Treadwell. Bale’s Dieter Dengler may be tough enough to endure torture, but he isn’t vengeful or sadistic enough to dish it out. He designs an escape plan for minimal violence that gives all of his fellow captives a real shot at making it out alive. After escape, when his injured buddy (Steve Zahn) slows him down, he tends to him with the delicacy of a parent.
If the above plot details sound like spoilers, not to worry. Rescue Dawn is delectable not because of the seemingly generic war movie suspense that antsy critics are already lining up to decry. The treasures here are in the human and animal performances Herzog corrals and the dance that cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger’s camera does around them. Don’t let this film’s inept, Chuck Norrissy trailer fool you; Herzog and Zeitlinger drink deep. The 1.85:1 frame swoons and pulsates with intense regard for people, dogs, sun-dappled leaves, mud, a ball of rice. Zeitlinger does Ophuls swirls around the soldiers, prisoners and peasants fighting for their lives—a true danse macabre, but also a deranged celebration of life. There is terror and adoration in those nearly fisheye tracking shots through the prison camp/village and jungle thickets. Zeitlinger is forever withholding, opening out, unveiling with a grace that probably has Roman Polanski and Steven Spielberg hounding their agents. The sequence after Dengler escapes from his downed fighter jet delineates his subsequent capture like a silent movie. Without music or fashionable action flick stylistics (desaturated colors, strobing shutter, etc.), the camera compels attention merely through patient subjectivity as Dengler explores the utterly alien jungle. When he gets captured going for a drink of water in a pond, Herzog and Zeitlinger don’t give us menacing cutaways of approaching Pathet Lao guerillas accompanied by a subwoofer thrum. Instead, we become aware of the soldiers only when Dieter does, and the revelation occurs in a simple, steady, stomach-knotting pan.
Sounds rudimentary, but how many contemporary Ho’wood films on this scale trust the camera to do this kind of work when sound mixers, lab colorists and CGI geeks are chomping at the bit? (For more on this kind of restraint, see the lovely documentary In the Edges: The Grizzly Man Sessions, which shows Herzog supervising a handful of musicians scoring Grizzly Man. He warns them not to get carried away during improvised passages, like jazz musicians whose solo riffs do little more than “show off their brilliance.” The director may indulge hypnotic central performances, but his maxim for technicians and artisans seems to be, “serve the symphony.”)
Herzog also maintains an even hand on the actors. Though nearly upstaged by the unknowns who play prison guards Crazy Horse, Little Hitler and Walkie Talkie, Zahn and the great Jeremy Davies (as Dengler’s feuding fellow Americans) create two vibrant eccentrics for Bale to swap crazy with. The prisoners’ hunger and desperation have rendered them child-like in some respects; Herzog finds something beautiful in this: In a scene where the prisoners reminisce about delicious hot meals, Bale, Zahn and Davies quibble over the details like boys debating who would win a fight between Spiderman and The Thing. Another moment lets Bale deliver a monologue about the violent childhood origins of his flight obsession that resonates sharply with both Little Dieter Needs to Fly and preadolescent Bale’s euphoric/psychotic “Cadillac of the sky” scene in Empire of the Sun. When Bale caps the story with, “Ever since then, Little Dieter needed to fly,” Zahn’s wide grin tells it: Deiter’s functional madness is infectious. Davies, meanwhile, as Dengler’s emaciated leadership rival, also competes with Bale for Top Loon. Whereas Bale’s absurd All-American sturdiness is like a pristine American flag planted on a bomb crater, Davies’ mumbling, whispering, sidewinding performance is the colorful carnage. (It’s always been a mystery to me why this kid wasn’t cast in the Psycho remake for a letter perfect Norman Bates.) Again, though, it must be stressed to Herzog fans—the kind who’d wear Kinski’s face on a T-shirt Che Guevara-style—that the mania on display here is not for ironic hipster delectation. (Well, none of Herzog’s films are, really, but that’s another story.) Cineastes who simply want Aguirre, Reloaded—brain candy to offset a weed high—might find Rescue Dawn pretty low-voltage and a little square.
The film’s third act draws out such lazy viewers like tear gas:
Dengler’s escape, rescue, recovery and final celebration play to an often exultant, triumphalist accompaniment. The music suddenly plays the film cheap. (Otherwise, Klaus Badelt’s score is often quite subtle, eloquent and inseparable from the image, crucial to many sequences’ structure and impact.) Even so, Herzog’s larger vision bursts through: Dengler, still a virtual skeleton in his hospital bed, reunites with his Navy buddies and lets them “kidnap” him before C.I.A. officers can take him off to a debriefing. They smuggle him out of the hospital and over to his true home, an aircraft carrier packed with cheering servicemen. Barely standing but beatific, he babbles a bit of philosophy (something like, “...empty what is full… fill what is empty…”) that sails over his comrades’ heads, but doesn’t dampen their excitement one bit. They hoist him on their shoulders like World Series victors as an officer-emcee screams into a microphone, “They love you!” Somewhere in there, Dieter also cries, “I love you guys!” If this moment weren’t smothered in Ho’wood/Hans Zimmerish muzak, it would be easier to appreciate as an expression of military fraternity boiling over into mad love. Bale’s wraith-like appearance says it all; it did something to me that no war film I’ve ever seen had managed: Suddenly, I understood the religious devotion some have to military service. Herzog understands people through their religion, be it ski jumps, bears, grand opera, El Dorado or, as in this scene, a band of brothers.
I want to say that the critics who choose to read this insanely happy ending as generic, jingoistic pandering to the U.S. of A are just taking it at face value. But the full value of this moment is right up front, not hidden in any ironic subtext. Herzog is not lurking in the shadows, whispering about how Dieter’s triumph is a sham or the Vietnam War is a crime. He is simply attempting to be true to a moment, to describe the lunacy of extreme joy as piercingly as he does rage, terror and anomie. That’s so cool. Steven Spielberg may be gunning for cinema Popehood; Wim Wenders may be a continent-bridging screen angel, but right about now Herzog’s effort to adopt experiences, find common ground and convey his findings in the most intimate yet accessible voice makes him an unlikely Ambassador of Love.
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.