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MOVIES | THE DIRECTOR'S CRAFT | BY PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Night Vision

Werner Herzog's new film takes him back into the heart of darkness.

June 24, 2007|Patrick Goldstein

In the living room of his cozy home in the hills above Los Angeles, Werner Herzog has a quiver of brightly colored arrows from a tribe of Amazon Indians he met while making one of his many documentaries. Tribe members were the last people in the Amazon to be, as the filmmaker puts it, "contacted" by white people.

As I went to touch the point of one arrow, he cautioned, "They're still quite poisonous. The brown stuff on the inside is anticoagulant. If you get hit with one, you won't stop bleeding easily."

When Werner Herzog issues a warning, it's prudent to obey. At 64, he is our filmmaking god of dark adventure, a willful but adventuresome artist whose characters -- both in his features and documentaries -- test the boundaries of human madness and quixotic folly. Herzog is best known for German classics such as 1982's "Fitzcarraldo," the story of a man who attempts to build an opera house in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. In recent years, he has devoted himself to documentaries about equally obsessive characters, notably "Grizzly Man," the 2005 film about Timothy Treadwell, the ill-fated adventurer whose affinity for bears led him to a grisly end in the wilds of Alaska.

Herzog's new film is something of an event, being his first widely distributed feature since the early 1980s. Due out July 4, "Rescue Dawn" is another one of his fables about the dark recesses of human nature. Set during the Vietnam War, the real-life story stars Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler, a German-born U.S. fighter pilot who escapes from a POW camp after being tortured by the Pathet Lao deep in the Laotian jungle. Audacious and ingenious, Dengler is the most accessible hero Herzog has ever put on screen, brimming with take-charge swagger even as his fellow captives teeter on the brink of despair.

In anyone else's hands, the story might have drifted into triumph-of-the-human-spirit territory. But Herzog knew Dengler personally -- he did a documentary about the same events in 1997, called "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." Well acquainted with the horrors of war, having grown up starving and fatherless in postwar Germany, Herzog refuses to shy away from the brutality that Dengler -- who died in 2001 -- and his fellow prisoners suffered at the hands of their guards.

As with so many of his films, Herzog shot much of the picture documentary style, filming for weeks in the jungles of Thailand. He instructed his actors to lose weight -- Bale lost 55 pounds to give himself an appropriately skeletal look -- and dropped nearly 30 pounds himself as a form of "solidarity."

Even if the filmmaker's reputation for rigor hadn't preceded him, the actors knew they wouldn't be coddled. "My first question to Christian was, 'Would you be prepared to bite a snake in two?' " Herzog recalls. "He immediately said, 'Yes.' As it happens, he did catch a snake that tried to bite him. But it wasn't poisonous." The filmmaker sighs, as if brooding about a deadly snake was hardly worth the bother. "I always offered to demonstrate anything the actors were worried about."

What America stands for

THE film's harrowing scenes of torture have an unsettling resonance today, with one former prisoner of war, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), running for president and the country at odds over America's treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Herzog is especially proud that "Rescue Dawn" arrives on the Fourth of July.

"It's a day, after the fireworks and the beer, that America looks at itself," he says. "The film doesn't engage in any America-bashing or primitive patriotism. But I would say that everything that is great about America was contradicted by Abu Ghraib. If Dieter had been in that prison, we wouldn't have seen what we did. One single man could've made a difference, especially someone like Dieter, who came to America as an immigrant wanting to live out his dream -- a dream to fly."

Herzog is also an immigrant to America, though his dreams have always been more complicated. The filmmaker's worldview is best captured in "Grizzly Man" when, in his role as narrator, he says, "I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony but chaos, hostility and murder."

Even a simple conversation has its hazards. During a recent interview with the BBC conducted on a hillside near his house, Herzog was hit in the stomach by a stray bullet from someone with a rifle on a balcony. When we spoke he downplayed the event, saying, "It was a very insignificant bullet."

But he isn't taking chances. During a follow-up e-mail exchange, he asked me not to supply any "precise hints" about his address. His explanation offers a window into the Herzog universe: "I have had quite a few encounters with clinically insane people coming after me. Having been shot during an interview was rather a coincidence, an arabesque. I have seen much more serious things coming after me in the past."

L.A.'s substance behind the glitz

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