October 2007

Arts & Letters

Low-flying aircraft

By Luke Davies
Werner Herzog’s ‘Rescue Dawn’

In 1987, in Empire of the Sun, Steven Spielberg introduced a new actor, the young Christian Bale, as Jim - playing, to all intents and purposes, the young JG Ballard. Empire of the Sun was Ballard’s soaring novel based on his time interned in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. Its excellence was transferred to the cinema: Empire is one of Spielberg’s best films. Bale propels the story; he is its manic centre, a child so bent on survival that emotions are a luxury. It’s an extraordinary performance for a 12-year-old. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Jim, his obsession with planes in adrenaline-fuelled overdrive, runs to the roof of the compound as American fighter jets fly through the camp. “Wooh!” he bellows, his knees almost buckling, as a pilot passes at eye level. The pilot dips his wings and looks out at Jim from the cockpit - in slow motion, naturally, and with John Williams’ score swelling feverishly. Jim is enraptured: “B-51! Cadillac of the sky! B-51! Cadillac of the sky! Horsepower! Horsepower!” he screams, his voice getting hoarse as he becomes ever more hysterical. “B-51! I touched them! I touched them! I felt the heat! I can taste them in my mouth! Oil and cordite!”

Christian Bale is now 33 and one of the more remarkable actors of his generation. He is back trying to live by his wits in another prison camp, in Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn (released nationally on 8 November). Bale plays Dieter Dengler, an American pilot shot down on a “classified” mission over Laos in 1966. In one scene he relates to a fellow prisoner, Duane (Steve Zahn), how he became obsessed with flying as a teenager in Germany during World War II, when American bombers flew low over his home town of Wildberg and he saw one close by. “The canopy was open. The pilot had his goggles up on his helmet, and I could see his eyes. He was looking right at me. And from that moment on, little Dieter - he needs to fly!” The memory - which Bale, as Dieter, describes with a glint in his eye - might well come straight from young Jim’s moment of ecstasy in Empire of the Sun. But while that episode is about as mad as Spielberg gets, Dieter’s retelling of his epiphany has a glow of sane nostalgia rare in a Herzog film.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly is the title of a wonderful and quirky 1997 documentary by Herzog in which he travels to Vietnam and Laos with the real Dieter Dengler, who really was shot down and taken prisoner by the notorious Pathet Lao. His survival and escape is one of those tales of obsessive focus and determination that Herzog has revisited again and again over a career spanning more than 50 films. In his fictions Herzog is invariably drawn to visionaries, madmen and outsiders (Nosferatu, Stroszek, Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo) whose destinies are invariably tragic, while in his documentaries he often follows the tales of people with more optimistic dispositions, or just plain well-balanced folk who experience a stroke of luck. (The beautiful but disturbing Grizzly Man, in which the hapless Timothy Treadwell meets a grizzly end, is a radical exception to this.) In his documentary Wings of Hope (2000), for example, Herzog went to the Amazon jungle with Juliane Koepcke, the lone survivor of a 1971 plane crash which killed all 92 other passengers and crew. After the plane broke apart when struck by lightning, she fell 10,000 feet through the air while strapped in her seat, crashed through the tree canopy and landed in thick mud, then walked through the jungle for ten days to find help. Herzog, on his way to Peru to begin shooting Aguirre, Wrath of God, had been booked on that flight but was bumped from it.

The real Dieter Dengler, in Little Dieter Needs To Fly, is a beguiling and curiously unflappable non-visionary, non-mystical type. What stands out in the documentary, as Herzog leads him back into the jungle of his trauma, is his absolute positivity, even as he recounts the horrendous events he endured. Herzog has stuck to this line in Rescue Dawn. Bale plays Dieter as an unflagging optimist, so friendly and affable that the film may ultimately be more of an endearing character study than a survival-and-escape narrative. It’s Herzog in familiar territory: for more than 40 years he has been investigating what makes unusual people tick and encouraging us to get lost in their strange realities. It’s what makes him great at times, and fascinating even when he misfires. He aspires to a cinema that induces an altered state, rather than one that provides diversionary amusement. That said - and Dieter being especially well balanced, as opposed to especially crazy - Rescue Dawn is the closest of all Herzog’s feature films to being a straight entertainment, rather than a mystic trance.

It begins with some of that old promise, with slow-motion newsreel footage of napalm-bombing runs shot from the planes’ point of view, the jungle exploding as it unrolls beneath. So far, so Apocalypse Now - though that film owed its ultimate debt, stylistically, structurally, tonally, to Aguirre, Wrath of God, Herzog’s 1972 masterpiece in which Klaus Kinski plays a demented and doomed Spanish conquistador travelling down the Amazon. This opening, this fascination with the aesthetics of destruction, is reminiscent too of Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1992), a documentary, if you can call it that (‘hallucination’ would be a better word; Herzog likes to refer to it as “a science fiction”), of the burning Kuwaiti oilfields in the aftermath of the first Gulf War.

But Rescue Dawn settles down to become something quite different for Herzog: a reasonably conventional, reasonably satisfying, old-fashioned film. After a lifetime of seeing him work magic with small budgets, it is decidedly odd to see him using crane shots: just your everyday, Spielbergian now-let’s-rise-over-this-fence-and-reveal-the-prison-camp crane shots, but crane shots nonetheless. Werner comes to Hollywood at last. The soundtrack, by Klaus Badelt, jars, though. There are moments when you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to the aforementioned John Williams, so full is it of now-you-should-feel-this-and-now-you-should-feel-that bombast. Those excellent German electronic expressionist weirdos Popol Vuh have haunted many of Herzog’s films, from Aguirre to Nosferatu to Fitzcarraldo. The ending of Rescue Dawn, by contrast, sounds like it’s been hijacked by Top Gun; indeed, so weirdly triumphalist is its tone that we half imagine it’s Tom Cruise and not Christian Bale emerging to greet the wildly cheering throngs.

The triumph, however, is pleasantly earned. The film’s elements are so simple and the story so compressed that we are never far from the likeable, indefatigable Dieter Dengler. We open with the pre-flight briefing. It is Dieter’s first combat mission. He is wished good luck. He is promptly shot down. He is taken prisoner. He meets his countrymen, emaciated, sapped of all energy. Duane becomes Dieter’s sidekick in plotting an escape. Jeremy Davies (Secretary, Soderbergh’s Solaris) delivers one of his trademark oddball performances as another prisoner. The rest seem to have accepted defeat and the long wait till the war ends. Dieter will have none of it.

In other hands the material may have seemed slight, but Bale single-handedly carries it off. The ending - make of it what you will - aside, the film works in a very contained way. “Dieter Dengler,” Herzog has said, in what could be read as a mission statement, “embodied everything I love about America: courage, perseverance, optimism, self-reliance, frontier spirit, loyalty and joy of life.” Bale, with that beautifully mischievous twinkle in his eyes, gets this. It is as if he understands that his task is to embody the Buddhist maxim about joyful participation in the sufferings of life.

Rescue Dawn is a strangely apolitical work, given the subject matter. The POWs had been flying “black” operations over Laos, but this is given no real weight, except insofar as the buffoonish CIA men at the end are scrambling to keep everything “classified”. There is, however, a curiously chilling moment when Duane says, “I was shot down about a year-and-a-half ago. When this war starts, we’ll be here a lot longer than we already have.” Elsewhere, asked to sign a North Vietnamese propaganda document, Dieter simply responds, “I love America. America gave me wings. I will not sign it. No way.” Herzog himself has said that he’s not trying to look at the bigger picture, of Vietnam or America’s place in the world; rather, the film is “a Joseph Conrad vision of the test and trial of men”.

“I world champion of bad luck,” a South Vietnamese prisoner informs Dieter. “I tell you something: I undefeatable.” Although he was shot down on his first mission, Dieter clearly sees himself as the polar opposite of this man. And this is where Herzog is yet again breaking the rules. Film convention dictates that the protagonist must continually come up against obstacles. That happens here, of course, in spades. But what the convention also dictates is that the protagonist must profoundly doubt his ability to overcome these obstacles, before eventually overcoming them. Dieter Dengler, though, has not an ounce of doubt. Mercifully his self-belief is not arrogant; he just moves methodically and cheerfully through his world, as if every choice he makes is the only one available.

In Polanski’s harrowing The Pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), wanting to survive the Nazi devastation of the Warsaw Ghetto, believes that if you stay still enough for long enough, you’ll become invisible. In Rescue Dawn, Christian Bale’s character seems to be applying the theory that a moving target is harder to hit. It is not unlike Werner Herzog’s own continual shape-shifting. He, too, is unshakable in his self-belief and knows the ultimate value of his films. “In 400 years,” he says, “I’ll overtake Terminator.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

Cover: October 2007
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