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
AFTER years of traveling, he and his wife, Lena -- a photographer who grew up in Siberia -- settled in Los Angeles in 2001. It marked the beginning of a love affair with this much-maligned city. “We lived for a while in San Francisco, but it was too chic and leisurely,” Herzog explains. “New York is only a place to go if you’re into finances. But we wanted a place of cultural substance. And if you look behind the stereotype of glitz and glamour, that is Los Angeles.”
Herzog likes Los Angeles because, in his eyes, it is so un-chic, its treasures so unappreciated. “If you go to Florence, it has all surface beauty, but like Venice, it’s simply a museum of Renaissance times. Los Angeles is raw, uncouth and bizarre, but it’s a place of substance. It has more new horizons than any other place.”
His friends include everyone from magician Ricky Jay to David Wilson, the founding director of the Museum of Jurassic Technology. “I suspect Werner likes Los Angeles because there’s much more mental space here,” says Wilson. “You realize pretty quickly that he’s interested in people who’ve learned what they know viscerally, through life experience, not through some conceptual knowledge.”
Herzog spends a lot of time at places like the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the Institute for Figuring and an obscure warehouse in Pasadena that he says has a treasure trove of archival information about NASA space missions.
“It has all of the photos and test results going back to the 1940s, a cornucopia of the exploration of our solar system,” the filmmaker says. “But no one knows it’s there. Everything is untouched in cardboard boxes. It’s like going to Seville to see the archives there with the logbooks of Columbus as he conquered the New World.”
He discovered unseen footage there that was filmed by the astronauts during a 1989 space mission that he used as the centerpiece for the recent film “The Wild Blue Yonder.” The picture blends a tale told by a wild-eyed Brad Dourif, who claims he’s from the outer reaches of Andromeda, with real NASA footage and interviews with egghead physicists.
For Herzog, the borderline between fiction and reality is hazy at best. Facts, he says, are for accountants. He often tells stories that seem as hyperbolic as anything in his movies, beginning with the tale that his childhood was spent in a Bavarian village so remote that he didn’t see a banana until he was 12.
Who would believe, for instance, that when Joaquin Phoenix flipped his car driving down a back road in Laurel Canyon it would be the eccentric filmmaker knocking on his car window. As he later told The Times: “There was this German voice saying, ‘Just relax.’ ... And suddenly I said to myself, ‘That’s Werner Herzog!’ ”
When I asked about the incident, Herzog offered the sort of droll detail you’d expect from a master storyteller. “The danger wasn’t the accident, per se,” he says. “It was the gasoline dripping from the car and the fact that Joaquin, then upside down, was nervously fumbling for a cigarette, an act I had to talk him out of. Once I saw the gasoline, I thought the idea of him smoking would be a very bad idea.”
For Herzog, in true art, the story is always changing. When filming “Rescue Dawn,” it drove his crew crazy that he couldn’t remember anything about the script, even though he’d written it himself. “I never read a screenplay once I’ve finished it -- it stifles life on the set,” he says. “It’s unhealthy to be too absorbed in your own text. When I’m shooting I want to discover the story all over again.”
His own style of filmmaking
THWARTED for years from doing a major feature, Herzog wasn’t all that choosy about who financed “Rescue Dawn.” His neophyte backers included L.A. nightclub operator Steve Marlton and Los Angeles Clippers star Elton Brand. According to a New Yorker piece that ran not long after filming was completed, key members of the crew quit in disgust or were fired during production when paychecks didn’t materialize. The crew also was frustrated by Herzog’s unorthodox shooting style, which included an insistence on using himself as a stand-in for Bale and other actors.
Herzog notes that, outside of longtime cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, most of the crew had never worked with him before. “They came with the pedantic thinking of the studio system -- that, for example, you must first do a master shot with everyone in frame before you do close-ups.”
Herzog insists there was a method to his madness. “By being the last person out between the actors and the technical apparatus, I could tell when the actors were sometimes not ready for a scene. So I would stall, without the crew knowing, by pretending to change a camera filter. But I only could sense a problem because I was right there, next to the actors.”
The movie’s finances were so shaky during filming that Herzog never saw dailies. “No one had paid the lab, so they wouldn’t release our footage,” he says. But he insists the problems were from ignorance, not malevolence. “The producers’ inexperience was a nightmare, but it was a blessing too, because by them not knowing what was going on, I was allowed to do exactly the movie I wanted to do.”
He shrugs. “Why shouldn’t I do a movie with a producer who’s a nightclub owner? May I remind you that Sam Goldwyn was a glove salesman and Jon Peters a hairdresser? The real question is -- did I ever compromise? The answer is no.”
Herzog has done things his way for so long that he is almost immune to convention. One of the menacing prison guards in “Rescue Dawn” is called Walkie Talkie, a wry touch of humor, since he never speaks. The actor’s silence was more pragmatic than plot-driven because he was Cambodian and spoke no English, Thai or French.
“I explained the part to him in sign language,” Herzog says. “But I didn’t want anyone else. He had a dangerous stare in his eyes that fascinated me.”
For all his roguish tales, Herzog is someone who believes that what counts is pura vida -- real experience, not theory or fantasy. He sees tourism as a sin, traveling on foot as a virtue. He would boot everyone out of film school until they’d done something real, like been a warden in a lunatic asylum or worked as a bouncer in a sex club. His favorite writers -- Joseph Conrad, Cormac McCarthy and Bruce Chatwin -- are men who have been out in the world.
“When someone comes to me who’s earned a living as a boxer or been in jail in Africa, they would be a lot more qualified to be my assistant than someone who came from Harvard film school,” he says. “What counts is the raw life.”
Staff Writer Goldstein’s column, The Big Picture, runs Tuesdays in Calendar.