More madness from Herzog

With his new movie ‘Rescue Dawn,’ Werner Herzog proves he’s either the greatest director to ever deal with human madness, or the maddest director obsessed with his own foray into the subject

Michael Garberich

Toward the end of Werner Herzog’s most acclaimed film, “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” one of Aguirre’s men, starved and hallucinating, inanely prattles in good faith, “That is no ship. That is no forest.” He sits on the deck of their shambled ship, languidly positioned against the mast. Their mission, to reach El Dorado, has retired with their sanity. An arrow from assaulting natives strikes him in the thigh. He glances down at it without moving his head and says, “That is no arrow.”

“Rescue Dawn”

DIRECTED BY: Werner Herzog
STARRING: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies
Rated: PG-13
PLAYING AT: Uptown Theatre, 2906 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
www.landmarktheatres.com, (612) 825-6006

Herzog has pursued these fissures in reality throughout his career, consistently pitting humanity against a nature it has determinedly held at a distance, and has done so with widely varied degrees of success. If “Aguirre” is his best, his remake of the silent, German expressionistic vampire tale, “Nosferatu,” balances the scale as one of his worst.

With “Rescue Dawn,” Herzog again revisits familiar territory – inhospitable, indifferent jungle – as well as a familiar story. His 1997 documentary, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” redramatized American pilot Dieter Dengler’s capture and torture in a bamboo prison in Laos, after militants shot down his plane.

Now with a second adaptation (that’s documentary and “based on a true story” adaptation), Herzog recasts the entire tale with Christian Bale as Dengler, and then trudges through it with unfortunate indifference. While watching “Rescue Dawn,” an inscrutable sense that Herzog might be too familiar with his story lingers in the background.

The set up at the navy base before Dengler’s plane crashes into the marsh skips along as if Herzog only included it out of logistic necessity to mire this guy where he doesn’t want to be. The men volley chauvinistic banter while watching a bland instructional video on how to survive the jungle should you find yourself stranded, and the counterpoint to the story we expect (and receive) is blunted: droll, unimaginative, situational drama is flat without personal, emotional relevance.

The cure for this dramatic void, as Herzog has repeatedly attempted and here again attempts to provide, is to intimately survey the minutiae of anguish and torture, and the psychological duress into which man and mankind can fall as a result.

But he seems to have lost sight of the minute, and focuses instead on general lapses in military diplomacy, misunderstandings, or just plain language barrier. Dieter asks his militant captors if he can go to the bathroom; he’s tied supine, his arms and legs outstretched, to the ground instead. He tries to organize an escape with fellow prisoners, but one sees their choices differently, and refuses to comply. The horror. The horror.

The most affective scene is more of a fragment, a snapshot of absurdity: After escaping the prison, Dengler and Duane (Steve Zahn outdoing Bale) still need to navigate the jungle en route to Thailand. American helicopters soar over the jungle canopy – their rumble momentarily overtakes the persistent trill of insects and briefly lightens the men’s diminishing spirits. In a moment of droll, calculated irony, Dengler waves and jumps wildly, as instructed in the video, but the helicopters just fire rounds. The camera quickly pans down to Zahn propped against a tree trunk with his arm helplessly outstretched and a vapid expression straining to form something of a plea.

The shot is one Herzog knows well and has exploited in his best films, most notably with the iconic face of German actor Klaus Kinski in “Aguirre.” It’s the same technique in “Rescue Dawn,” it just happens to come from the actor in the supporting role instead of the lead. And the film fits appropriately in Herzog’s body of work, somewhere in the middle, supporting his prior efforts, even better than many, but short of the lead.

It would be nearly hallucinatory to claim Herzog has not made a good film – “That is no question.” And when dealing with this once pioneering, still great filmmaker, to say that “Rescue Dawn” falls somewhere in the middle in terms of acclaim, “That is no remark. That is no praise.”