Opening reception: Saturday, October 21, 6–8pm
The Ecstatic Truth - Werner Herzog's Quest.
Werner Herzog hastily cordoned off swath of jungle with wooden sticks and yellow tape, like a cop marking a crime scene. "Nobody will cross this line!" he announced. It was late August, and the German director had travelled to northwest Thailand, a few miles from the border of Burma, to shoot "Rescue Dawn" amid virgin rain forest. It was his first Hollywood-funded feature, and he was determined to stop what he called the Apparatus --a squadron of makeup artists, special-effects engineers, and walkie-talkie-carrying professionals who had been deployed to work with him--from trampling on yet another pristine thicket. Herzog, who typically, works with a small crew and a minuscule budget, was pleased to have millions of dollars at his disposal, but he was not so pleased to have been saddled with more than a hundred collaborators. "I do not need all these assistants, " he complained. "I have to work around them." The enclave he had sequestered was filled with overgrown vines and rotting, semi-collapsed palm trees, and was partially hidden by a moss-slicked boulder. Herzog, having spent his childhood clambering across the Alpine slopes of southern Bavaria, says that he has an uncanny talent for "reading a landscape, " and he could immediately spot the danger: his primeval nook was an ideal place for a bathroom break.
A dozen Thai crew members began setting up equipment at the base of a sharply sloped mountain that appeared much taller than it was, owing to the ancient, absurdly distended trees that covered it. The mountain was garlanded with picturesque wisps of mist, but Herzog, who has filmed three documentaries and three features in deep jungle, did not want the terrain in his film to have the groomed, glistening-dewdrop look of so many movies set in frond-filled places. "The moment anything on this film becomes purely aesthetic, I will stop it, " he had promised.
Herzog, now sixty-three, no longer has the virile brown mustache of his youth, but his face has compensated by acquiring a patina of menace. Gravity has given his mouth a permanent frown. His blue eyes are partially obscured by thick, drooping brows, and they are perpetually rheumy, as if he were harboring a deadly tropical disease. "I am always being stopped at airports by drug-interdiction officials, " he said, with satisfaction. "There is something about my face that is sinister." The aura is heightened by his sonorous voice, which, in his heavily accented English, suggests a Teutonic Vincent Price. Herzog likes to say that he is "clinically sane and completely professional, " but he is keenly aware that his reputation is otherwise--"One of the most persistent rumors plaguing me is that I'm a crazy director doing crazy things"-and he is fascinated by the myriad ways that people form this impression.
Herzog has spent his career rushing headlong into new projects--in 2005, he released three documentaries, including the heralded "Grizzly Man, " and each was filmed on a different continent--but in "Rescue Dawn" he is revisiting familiar ground. The movie, his fifty-second, will be his first twice-told tale: a feature-film version of "Little Dieter Needs to Fly, " his 1997 documentary about Dieter Dengler, a German-American pilot who was shot down during a bombing mission over Laos, in the early days of the Vietnam War. After being tortured for six months in a Pathet Lao prison camp--his head was repeatedly covered with an ants' nest during interrogations--Dengler escaped, taking with him another P.O.W., Duane Martin. Dengler helped Martin, who was sick with dysentery, trek across the monsoon-swamped jungle. He built a makeshift raft for Martin, camouflaged him with branches, and guided him westward along muddy tributaries, toward the Mekong River. One afternoon, they encountered some Lao villagers and were attacked. Martin was beheaded. Dengler evaded capture and survived for weeks in the forest, on a diet of beetles and snakes, before being rescued by a U.S. Army helicopter. Herzog became close friends with Dengler, who died in 2001. He said of him, "All that I like about America was somehow embodied in Dieter: self-reliance and courage and loyalty and optimism, a strange kind of directness and joy in life."
In the documentary, Dengler recounts his escape in a transfixing monologue, vividly conjuring the horror of being lost in the jungle: sudden mud slides sent him and Martin careering down jagged mountains, and he woke up each morning covered with leeches. For him, wild Nature was even more brutal and confining than the Pathet Lao prison. "Rescue Dawn" aimed to convert Dengler's monologue into visceral cinema.
To convey the feeling that Dengler's liberation from prison was no liberation at all, Herzog wanted the new film's star, Christian Bale, to spend time forcing his way through forest so tangled that it appeared "almost unmanageable for human beings." The camera, Herzog explained, would trail Bale closely, heightening the oppressive mood. "We are really with him the whole time, trapped in this forest prison, " he said. "There is no width of perspective."
A fast-moving cloud unleashed a short burst of rain, and Thai production assistants collected beneath the gnarled boughs of an old pomelo tree. Herzog, who was still drying off from an earlier rain, allowed his T-shirt and khakis to be re-soaked as he set up that afternoon's scene, which depicted the frenzied moment of Martin's decapitation. Speaking in German, the director discussed how to choreograph the sequence with his longtime cinematographer, Peter Zeitlinger, a burly Czech who appeared on location each day wearing a flowing white linen ensemble. As they talked, Herzog stood in front of Zeitlinger's camera and mimed a series of rapid actions: kneeling, twisting around, raising an imaginary blade, then running to the area hidden by the boulder.
"Don't you want a stand-in?" Julian White, the chief lighting designer, asked. Like most of the crew, White, a commonsensical Englishman, had not worked with the director before.
"No, no, no, " Herzog said. "I'm always the best stand-in."
These days, film directors typically cocoon themselves, setting up shots by watching a monitor that displays a live feed from the cinematographer's lens; this tells them exactly how a scene will appear onscreen. But Herzog refuses to separate himself from the action: he wants to feel what he's filming. His participatory method struck many crew members as bizarre. "How can you see the way a shot looks if you're the stand-in?" White later muttered to himself.
"You can't see yourself."
Herzog was being barraged by such complaints. At every turn, crew members let him know that they considered his directing habits strange, impulsive, even amateurish. They couldn't comprehend why Herzog insisted on grabbing the machete himself when the sound crew wanted to capture the sound of dashed reeds. They were baffled by his ignorance of his own screenplay; Herzog told me that he hadn't reread it once since writing it, three years earlier, because he wanted to "respond to the situation in the jungle" and "keep things completely fresh." They were annoyed by continuity errors that Herzog considered "of no great consequence." ("Werner, isn't Christian supposed to have a rucksack in this scene?") They were irritated when Herzog declared that someone's unfinished makeup looked "good enough, " and that he couldn't wait for it to be perfect, because he liked the way the tropical light was filtering through the treetops. They objected to his reliance on hastily improvised handheld shots. ("How about using a dolly just this once?") And they questioned his reluctance to film scenes with more than one camera. ("The audience will never see Christian's reaction unless you add a closeup.") Herzog's stated belief that his approach would create "an event-based dynamic, a feeling of being an observer dragged into the scene, " struck many of his colleagues as a cover for a lack of technique. As they saw it, Herzog was ruining a potentially lush adventure movie by shooting it like a quickie documentary.
The fact that Herzog has been making films for more than forty years, many of them acclaimed as works of unnerving originality, didn't shake the collective judgment that he was doing it all wrong. The mood on the set was toxic. Josef Lieck, the first assistant director, who has worked with Wim Wenders, said, "For a man of his age, it's a veryraw talent. It's more like an eighteen-year-old running into the forest." A costume designer complained, "He doesn't know basic things about filmmaking, things that simply make it easier to tell a story. He thinks that these things will undermine his vision, but they won't." Harry Knapp, an assistant director, said, "There is a silent war on the set. We're all in a state of shock." Herzog, for his part, politely ignored the crew's complaints. Zeitlinger explained, "When making a film, Werner tries to pretend as if nobody is around but him and the actors."
Bale and Steve Zahn, who plays Martin, arrived at the mountainside--doing so required crossing a rushing river on a bridge consisting of a few wobbly bamboo poles--along with several actors from the local hill tribes. Herzog gave them succinct instructions; whenever he speaks, his hands make fluid, precise gestures, like those of a maestro. First, he said, Zahn's leg would be slashed by a Lao assailant. The beheading would occur off-screen. "I do not want to show any gory detail, " Herzog said. Zahn would then be replaced by a headless dummy, which would collapse at Bale's feet.
Herzog had exercised a similar kind of restraint in "Grizzly Man, " which tells of an environmental activist, Timothy Treadwell, who became so enchanted by Alaskan bears that he attempted a trans-species version of going native--living in the animals' habitat for months, and getting close to them, often with a video camera in hand. The sweetly deluded Treadwell could not see the dark truth of Nature, Herzog explains in a typically doomy voice-over ("I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony but hostility, chaos, and murder"), and Treadwell's experiment ended in dismemberment. The killing was caught on tape--Treadwell's lens cap was on, so the recording is audio only. Any other director would have shared at least a snippet. But in "Grizzly Man" the viewer sees only the back of Herzog's head as he listens through headphones; facing Herzog, and the camera, is Treadwell's former girlfriend, Jewel Palovak. As she silently gauges his horrified response, her face becomes a cracked mirror of the director's, telling viewers all that they need to know.
Zeitlinger suggested a way to combine the dummy's fall with an image of Bale rising up in the background, in order to give the scene a more "balletic" feel.
No, Herzog said. "If it's too perfect, then I'll hate it, " he explained. The sequence had to be blunt and brutal.
He turned to Bale, and said, "First you're kneeling, then scream, then look behind you, see the Lao guys, and scream--this way, then this way. An intimidating scream, Christian." Bale asked various questions as Herzog showed him how to position his body, but he was deferential. The actor, who had just starred in the summer blockbuster "Batman Begins, " had long wanted to work with Herzog, and he was willing to submit to onerous demands; in about four months, he had lost fifty-five pounds for the role, becoming cadaverous.
A comfort with discomfort is widely seen as a prerequisite for making a Werner Herzog film. Perhaps unfairly, he is less renowned for his oddly brilliant movies than for the arduous, and sometimes savage, circumstances under which they were made. On the set of his 1972 masterpiece, "Aguirre, The Wrath of God, " a vertiginous portrait of a Spanish conquistador who unravels during a search for El Dorado, Herzog struggled to control his gifted but satanically mercurial star, Klaus Kinski; at one point, when Kinski abruptly announced that he was quitting the production and leaving by canoe, Herzog threatened to shoot him. ("I said, 'You may reach the next river bend, but you'll do so with all the bullets in this gun in your head--except the one for me, '" he recalled. "He did not get in the boat. I believe that it was the right thing to do. Otherwise, there would be no 'Aguirre.'") "Fitzcarraldo, " released in 1982, is a beguiling folly about an eccentric music lover in turn-of-the-century Peru, who is determined to raise money for a tropical opera house. Herzog's hero decides to become rich by harvesting rubber trees, and, one day, when looking at a map of the Amazon, he impulsively concludes that the fastest way to transport his cargo is to push his steamboat over a mountain, allowing it to jump from one river system to another. Fitzcarraldo's quixotic fantasy comes to fruition in one of the most lyrical sequences ever put on film. The episode, unfortunately, is now widely recalled not as a coup de cinéma but as a leaden metaphor for the megalomania of film directors--because Herzog insisted on shooting the scene without special effects, a decision that nearly capsized the production. "Burden of Dreams, " a 1982 documentary about the making of "Fitzcarraldo, " presents Herzog as a real-life Kurtz--a deranged European presiding over a disintegrating fiefdom. Herzog contributed to this caricature with campy pronouncements: standing in a sun-dappled, twittering Peruvian glade, he declares, "The trees are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing. They just screech in painTaking a close look at what's around us, there is some sort of harmony: it's the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder."
Bale, whose diet had left him severely enervated, looked wearily at the curtain of foliage into which he would soon run. To buoy his star, Herzog spoke to him about some footage that they had shot a few days earlier, which had already been processed. In that scene, Dengler and Martin become hopelessly ensnared in reeds along a river's edge. Herzog told Bale, "You have never seen anything like this on film before, Christian. I am so happy. The wrangling with the vines, it's all physical. It's physical what you are doing and what the camera is doing. So you don't sense the camera. It's like another escapee. It really feels like the jungle is swallowing everything, even the camera.
The river sequence, as filmed, was awkwardly long, but it would likely appear uncut in Herzog's edit. He believes in the occasional squirm-inducing shot. As he told me, "Sometimes the beauty or the horror of an image only settles in the mind when it is shown for an extended period." His previous feature, "The Wild Blue Yonder, " a wily experiment with science fiction, is anchored by twenty-one minutes of unyieldingly slow underwater footage, in which a scuba diver floats beneath the Antarctic ice shelf. (The hauntingly alien landscape--in which even coral is spined with ice--is meant to represent the interior of a distant planet.) And "Aguirre" achieves its potency by instilling the claustrophobic experience of the Spanish explorers: static shots of Amazonian river bends, in which the vegetation at the water's edge blurs into a solid green wall, become highly agitating through repetition.
The rain stopped, and the equipment was ready. "O.K., O.K., let's do it now, " Herzog said. Preparing the scene had taken, at most, ten minutes. "Action, " he said.
Now it was Zahn's turn to release a terrible, valley-shaking scream. Herzog yelled "Cut!" and immediately began preparing the shot of the falling dummy. On the ground, there was a drip-covered cannister marked "SUGAR-FREE FAKE BLOOD." "We won't use too much, " he said. (The sight of blood, Herzog confessed, makes him faint: "It is my Achilles' heel.") He walked over to the container, but restrained himself from grabbing it; instead, he seized an opportunity to jab back at the crew. Staring into the crowd that was hunched along the boulder, he asked, "O.K., may I have some blood from the Blood Department?"
One morning that week, Herzog stood amid the charred ruins of a small straw-hut settlement. It was only eight o'clock, but the sun was already bullying; in an adjoining rice paddy, black butterflies hugged the shade. At dusk on the previous day, Herzog had filmed a scene in which Dengler, after making a bed of banana leaves for the delirious Martin, sets a thatched dwelling ablaze, in a failed effort to attract attention from American rescue pilots. Herzog had been planning to film a few additional moments at the abandoned village--a genuine ruin, which he had discovered earlier in the summer--and he was not happy to learn that it had been aggressively incinerated by his crew, after he had left. The effects team had apparently deemed Herzog's rendition of the scene insufficiently pyrotechnic and had unleashed their full firepower, filming the village from the point of view of a helicopter, even though Herzog had made clear that he did not want aerial shots in the film. "The site looks like what you'd see after Gaiseric laid siege to Rome, " Herzog joked bitterly. He is a connoisseur of ancient battles; whenever he makes a film, he takes along Livy's history of the Second Punic War. "I read it for consolation when times get dire, " he said.
This was one of those times. Though shooting had just begun, the conflagration was the latest in a rapid series of mishaps. During the dusk scene, a reconnaissance helicopter had flown over the burning village, as planned, but a crucial plot detail was missing. In Herzog's screenplay, flares attached to parachutes float down from the aircraft. The parachutes had played a central role in Dengler's real-life rescue--he used their shimmery white cloth to make an SOS sign--but Thai authorities had forbidden the "Rescue Dawn" team from importing flares. It wasn't clear how to fill the plot hole. A few days earlier, Chris Carnel, a stuntman, had been carried from the set in an ambulance after performing in a mudslide sequence. Crew members felt that Herzog's version of the scene, filmed with Bale and Zahn, lacked a proper log-flume exuberance, and had not been shot from enough angles; against the director's wishes, the second unit had sent Camel and a companion zooming down the hill several more times, propelled by water that was dumped out of a huge tank. By the fourth or fifth take, enough mud had washed away to expose a tree stump at the dope's bottom--and Carnel smashed his rib cage. (Herzog, meanwhile, vowed that he would never use the extra footage; he was confident that his shot was better, because the actors had participated in it. "An audience always feels it when it's fake, " he said.)
Herzog was having other battles with the production company, Gibraltar Entertainment. Bale's involvement had helped Herzog secure financing, but, compared with the average Hollywood movie, "Rescue Dawn" had a modest budget--around ten million dollars-and Gibraltar had struggled to raise even this amount. Two weeks into the shoot, many crew members were grumbling that they had not been paid; the producers, they said, had shrugged off their complaints. Worse, Gibraltar had fired Walter Saxer, Herzog's longtime production manager and close friend. In protest, a dozen Thai crew members quit the production. The producers then dismissed Ulrich Bergfelder, a set designer who has worked with Herzog for thirty years, after a dispute over where to build the Pathet Lao prison. One of Gibraltar's principals, Steve Marlton, who was supervising the "Rescue Dawn" shoot, wanted the set constructed in southern Thailand, near the velvety beaches of Krabi. Bergfelder had argued that it would be cheaper and more authentic to build the prison nearby, in the hill country. But Marlton, a heavy man in his late thirties, was uncomfortable in the heat; crew members said that he had visited the set rarely, remaining in an air-conditioned hotel, and they speculated that he was desperate to leave the rain forest. Marlton, who made his fortune in the trucking industry, is new to the movie business. He is best known in Los Angeles for a popular night club that he co-owns, Pearl, which features erotic dancers performing inside translucent "shadowboxes." Marlton's other film projects include "Bottom's Up, " a comedy starring Paris Hilton.
"This change of location was done without consulting me, " Herzog had fumed at breakfast that morning. "It will be a costly mistake." The firing of Bergfelder, Herzog said, was "a way of demoting the man who pulled the ship up the mountain, by getting rid of the set designer who worked with him on 'Fitzcarraldo.'"
Herzog saw the prison-set dispute as part of a larger power struggle with Marlton, who, he said, had been frustrated when Herzog rejected his artistic suggestions. Marlton had asked Herzog to watch a DVD of a movie that had impressed him, "The Rundown"--a wildly kinetic 2003 feature, starring Dwayne (the Rock) Johnson, the former wrestler, about a bounty hunter who scours the Amazon for buried treasure--in the hope that Herzog would agree to hire the film's cinematographer. Herzog had insisted on using Zeitlinger, who is particularly skilled with a handheld camera.
"Rescue Dawn" is a canonical Herzogian tale, in that it portrays a man immersed in a situation of almost surreal extremity. Of course, that description could also apply to "Die Hard." The Gibraltar Web site characterizes "Rescue Dawn" as an "action thriller, starring Christian Bale." Since shooting began, it had become clear that taro rival visions had fatefully intersected in the Thai rain forest. One group of people had come to make a Werner Herzog film; another group wanted to make an inexpensive war flick starring Batman.
Herzog's inspection of the burned village had left the soles of his bare feet black. He raised his hands and told the crew that he had an announcement. After a meeting with Marlton at the hotel, Josef Lieck, the first assistant director, and Edward McGurn, the second assistant director, had emerged convinced that they would never be properly paid. "This is a very bitter moment for me, " Herzog began. He wore a frayed rugby shirt and mirrored sunglasses; his sunburned face had developed a magenta tinge. "Josef and Edward do not have a contract, and they have hung in out of pure loyalty to the film and, to some degree, maybe to me. Today, they have decided that they leave the production." His voice broke off for a moment. "O.K., back to work, " he said, adding a Lutherian vow: "Here I stand. I have no choice. So help me God."
The crew dispersed silently. Standing next to Herzog, and squeezing his hands with her own, was Lena, his wife of seven years. (His first marriage, to Martje Grohmann, a homeopath, ended in divorce.) Lena, a photographer, wore a celadon safari suit and had a heavy Leica camera around her neck; her lustrous blond hair was tied in a ponytail. She has published several coffee-table books--one documents the culture of Spanish bullfighting--and she regularly takes stills for Herzog's productions. "It's not an exciting assignment for me, but if I didn't do it I'd never see the man, " she told me. Lena, who is thirty- six, grew up in Siberia, and, in 1990, went to Stanford to do research in archeology; with her husband, she has travelled to places even more in hospitable than the Russian tundra. "I remember the time we visited this tribal area, five days by boat from Guayaramerín, Bolivia, which we were told was cannibalistic, " she recalled. "We spent the night outside, in two hammocks. That night, when I heard a noise near us, I woke up, gasping, 'Werner, it's them!" He sleepily replied, 'When they come, we won't hear them.' He went straight back to sleep. I didn't."
As Herzog discussed the parachute dilemma with Susanna Lenton, his script supervisor--they decided that Bale would spell "SOS" with banana leaves--Lena told me that her husband had gone to Thailand knowing that the producers had failed to raise the requisite funds. "Werner thought that by proceeding ahead he'd put wind in the sails of the project, " she said. "But now he's very distressed. Me, too." Unlike Herzog, who felt that he was "not allowed to have emotions" at such an imperilled moment, Lena expressed her anger. The producers were hardly penniless, she said: upon arriving in Thailand, she said, Marlton and other Gibraltar executives had "set up shop at the Oriental"--an expensive hotel in Bangkok. "They're treating everyone like slaves! And they have no respect for Werner." She concluded, "The movie will still be made in spite of them, and if it's destroyed it will be because of them. They're abusive and incompetent. They're not even Hollywood--they're would-be Hollywood!" She paused. "Peter Jackson can fart and get a hundred million dollars. Werner is not so lucky."
Herzog came over and put his arm around Lena. "I am trying to stop an avalanche from going down, " he explained to me. He has a penchant for jaws-of-death metaphors. "You may be a witness to the beginning of the end. Today, we are once again on the brink--and I must prevent us from falling off."
Herzog was in his element. As he had told me, he knew how to handle "the daily grind of catastrophe" that can beset a film set (or, at least, his film sets). On "Fitzcarraldo, " he had been forced to start over after his original star, Jason Robards, fell ill. Robards's replacement, Kinski, was incandescent as Fitzcarraldo, but he threw daily fits, frequently refusing to perform. This time, Herzog did not threaten Kinski with a gun, though a local Indian, appalled by the actor's vile manners, offered to murder him. It is impossible to say which was harder: getting Kinski to finish his scenes, or hauling the three-hundred-and-forty-ton steamboat over the mountain, via a creaky system of pulleys. No crew members were killed in the process, Herzog often points out, though the production sustained collateral damage. While the cinematographer was filming on board the steamboat as it bounced over fierce rapids, his hand was smashed open and had to be sewn up without anesthesia. A crew member was bitten by a snake whose venom can quickly induce cardiac arrest; to save himself, he cut off his foot with a chain saw. Another was paralyzed after his plane crashed en route to the isolated location, in northeast Peru. Yet the film betrays no sign of its agonized gestation: the prevailing tone is deliciously languid and dreamy, and Fitzcarraldo's labors evoke the Little Engine as much as Sisyphus.
Herzog told me that he did not expect to be paid for his work on "Rescue Dawn, " but he didn't mind. He had suffered worse, he said. And although he was indignant about how his colleagues were being treated, he felt that he had to keep shooting. "I must finish this film, " he said.
"You will, " Lena said.
Herzog, whose demeanor away from a camera is gentle and warm, thanked her with a flurry of short kisses, calling her "sweetie." Lena, for her part, calls Herzog her "churl"; she is amused by his coarse grooming habits. "Do you know how Werner has been washing his muddy pants here?" she asked me later, in a lighter mood. "At the hotel, he just walks into the shower fully clothed!"
Herzog got ready to film a short scene that takes place the morning after the helicopter sequence. A special-effects crew had hidden a smoke bomb inside one of the burned huts and ignited it. The emerging cloud was feeble.
"I don't see enough smoldering, " Herzog said. Before anyone could stop him, he walked inside the hut, grabbed the smoke bomb, and tossed it into a more open spot, where the breeze could nurture the flame.
Herzog turned his attention to the actors. Zahn was told to emerge from the hut in a state of confusion--his character is so worn out that the helicopters did not rouse him. On the first take, Zahn, an adroit performer, limped in too pronounced a manner.
"He looks over-quavery, " Herzog said. "Cut. Let's redo it."
In the foreground, Bale sat crumpled on the jungle floor. Zahn walked outside again, more naturally this time, and Bale torpidly said, "We've gotta get out of here, Duane." After a long pause, he added, "This will've attracted the attention of the Vietcong. They could be here any minute."
"Christian, get into the action quicker!" Herzog said. ''You had a whole night to think about what happened to you. And what I don't like is your mouth hanging open like this. It's too much. Keep it closed and think." He turned to me and explained, "We have this very, very slow emerging of Duane, and there is nothing happening, and the dialogue has the exact same kind of retardation. The scene doesn't yet have a rhythm."
Bale took his notes, and on the third take both performances were substantially improved. "Much better, " Herzog said. "Much more resolve, less melodramatic." But Herzog didn't like the way the actors had run off into the underbrush after saying their lines. They were too slow; he wanted to show them vanishing into the leaves, and the sequence had to be precisely timed, for there would be no cuts. They shot the scene again.
"What I'm doing here is very much like music, " he told me later. "The rhythm of a movie is never established during editing. It's established in the shots you make on location, which need to have their own proper meter." Herzog is contemptuous of movies that achieve surface vitality through manic cross-cutting. In "Herzog on Herzog" (2002), a book of interviews, edited by Paul Cronin, he says, "Poor filmmakers will often move the camera about unnecessarily and use flashy tricks and an excess of cuts because they know their material is not strong enough to sustain a passive camera.
The crew, meanwhile, speculated that there was another reason that Herzog was filming so much of "Rescue Dawn" with long shots and a single camera. Sometimes a producer who is unhappy with a director's cut of a film will seize all his footage and splice together a new version. By shooting scenes in one take, and from one angle, Herzog was protecting his work from editing-room tampering.
Herzog worked particularly quickly that day, filming scenes at three locations. In the evening, he filmed Bale alone in the jungle, huddled beneath a rocky overhang on which a faded gold Buddha was painted. A seven-foot-long banana leaf dangled over the shrine; it was weighed down, on its underside, by a giant gray slug. The trees thrummed with bats. To replace the moon, a small white balloon, embedded with electric bulbs, was inflated with helium. It slowly climbed upward, through the netted palms; when it was hovering above the treetops, the device was turned on. There was an implosive sound as moths and beetles hurtled into the glowing orb, which was soon speckled with the black outlines of ten thousand bugs. Herzog paused to admire the surreal beauty of his Hollywood moon, but only for a moment. On the jungle floor, the light was hardly perceptible, offering only shadowy intimations of the surrounding forest. He walked over to Bale, whose feet were bare and covered with cuts. Pointing to a forbidding knot of foliage, he said, "Next, I want you to run through that."
Spending time with Werner Herzog can make you feel as if you were trapped inside one of those postmodern novels of paranoia, in which a series of ominous-seeming events appear to be linked by more than chance. Why has Herzog's career been so consistently plagued by intrigue, peril, and disaster? Is there no overarching explanation for the pattern of catastrophe? "My character has nothing to do with it--it's just statistics, abnormal statistics, even though nobody will believe me, " he said during a visit to his home in Los Angeles, a comfortable bungalow in Laurel Canyon. It was hidden from the street by bushes so overgrown that they had knocked over the front fence. "People who do not know me think that I like filmmaking to be difficult, " he continued. "I do not. And I do not take unnecessary risks."
He added, "I have avoided the undoable things." In the nineteen-nineties, he decided not to pursue a project in Sudan, after enough people told him that he'd get killed in the midst of the ongoing civil war. He also abandoned plans to make a feature film on K2, the Himalayan mountain. The German mountaineer Reinhold Messner--the subject of a 1984 Herzog documentary--assured him that such a shoot would result in numerous fatalities. "There are just too many avalanches, " Herzog explained, with a wistful shrug.
"Now, I admit, I do not have a perfectly clean record, " he said. "I did climb La Soufriére when it was in danger of erupting." In 1977, he shot documentary footage from the lip of the volcano, which is on Guadeloupe, while it was regularly spewing toxic fumes. He emphasized, however, that he wasn't driven by a desire to tempt fate: "What I had heard was that there was one man who had refused to evacuate. That is what fascinated me--to explore a human being whose view of death is so different, who does something inexplicable." In the end, La Soufriére never blew up, baffling geologists. "I loved that, " he recalled, laughing. "It made my whole project wonderfully embarrassing." The documentary ends in wry voice-over: he pronounces his film "pathetic, " a "report on an inevitable catastrophe that did not take place." (For all his moments of self-seriousness, Herzog enjoys poking fun at his manly escapades; a memoir about the making of "Fitzcarraldo, " which was recently published in German, is titled "Conquest of the Useless.")
Herzog was sitting in his living room, a skylit space lined with books. On one shelf, near a copy of Martin Luther's Bible, is a framed photograph of his youngest child, Simon, standing next to a very large boa constrictor in the Amazon. (Simon, then nine, is now sixteen; Herzog's older son, Rudolph, a magician and filmmaker, is thirty-four; his daughter, Hanna, an art student in Amsterdam, is twenty-five.) Herzog took the picture himself, during the filming of a 2000 documentary, "Wings of Hope, " about Juliane Koepcke, a female counterpart to Dieter Dengler; in 1971, as a teen-ager, she survived a jetliner crash in Peru and made it out of the jungle alone. Simon was his "co-combatant" in the jungle, Herzog recalled fondly. "He found some airplane parts that had been completely covered up by the forest." At one point, he said, Simon got very sick-"from food poisoning or something, it was never clear"--but he "had a great time."
In the center of Herzog's living room is a vintage Deardorff camera, set up on a tripod. He stole his first movie camera, he told me, when he was a student at the University of Munich, in the early sixties. Herzog's directorial career was tumultuous from the start. His first full-length feature, "Signs of Life"--a satirical precursor of "Aguirre, " in which a German paratrooper becomes unhinged while stationed in the Aegean--was nearly upended because of what Herzog calls "a confrontation with the Greek military." He said, "It was 1967. Three weeks after we started shooting in Greece, on Kos, there was a coup d'état in Athens, and the new regime didn't like the tone of my script." His shooting permits were revoked. Herzog told a local Army officer that he would continue filming illegally, issuing a threat worthy of Pushkin. "I will not be unarmed tomorrow, " he said, and the first officer who touched him, he promised, would be shot dead. It was a ruse, and it worked: soldiers hovered but did not interfere. "After all this, my lead actor fell six feet or so and fractured his heel bone, " he continued. "The production was shut down for six months. Six feet, six months! It was as if I somehow attracted bad luck." Herzog can always point to some external force to explain his calamities. "When I was shooting 'Fitzcarraldo, ' did I cause the drought that left the boat stuck on the mountaintop for months?" he asked me. "Did I invent that coup d'état in Greece?" Perhaps not, but in 1970, while making "Fata Morgana, " a fantasia on scorched African landscapes, Herzog went to Cameroon a few weeks after a coup attempt took place. The police arrested him, Herzog says, after misidentifying a crew member as a wanted criminal. He and several crew members were beaten and thrown into a cell with "sixty other men." Herzog contracted bilharzia, a blood parasite.
Herzog does push his luck: he worked with Kinski five times, until, Herzog said, the actor went "bonkers" while filming "Cobra Verde, " the story of a Brazilian bandit; one day, Kinski placed a rock in his fist and attacked him. Kinski's crazed state is distractingly palpable in the film, which was released in 1987. (Kinski died in 1991; Herzog's double-edged documentary about their relationship, "My Best Fiend, " appeared in 1999.) Herzog's recklessness may also explain his decision to jump off a ramp and into a bed of cacti in the Canary Islands, while on the set of his second full-length film, "Even Dwarfs Started Small" (1970)--a memorably perverse spoof of Marxism, starring insurrectionary little people and defecating camels. (The film had a big influence on David Lynch.) Herzog insists that the jump was merely a goof--a way of bonding with his actors, some of whom had injured themselves while filming. The consequences were severe, though: spikes remained embedded in the sinews of Herzog's knee for more than a year, he said. In a similarly larksome spirit, Herzog swore to his friend Errol Morris--then a young man, now a preeminent creator of documentaries, including "The Fog of War"--that he'd offer a singular tribute if Morris, a habitual procrastinator, ever finished his first film. In 1979, Morris did so, and a short documentary by Les Blank, "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, " immortalizes the stunt: the boot was leather, the chef was Alice Waters, and the key ingredient was duck fat. A true Bavarian, Herzog told me, can't resist a spirited wager.
Herzog was born in Munich, the capital of Bavaria, in 1942. The disaster of Nazism, he said, informs his brooding world view. "I try to understand the ocean beneath the thin laver of ice that is civilization, " he said. "There's miles and miles of deep ocean, of darkness and barbarism. And I know the ice can break easily." When he was a few days old, he says, he was nearly killed after Allied bombs caused a skylight in his nursery to shatter; the shards fell around his bassinet but somehow did not injure him. (The image seems suspiciously apt-Chapter 1 in a life story defined by near-misses--but he insists that his mother, Elisabeth, "talked about this many times.") Elisabeth, a biologist, feared more bombs, and she moved the family to Sachrang, a remote village near the Austrian border. His father, Dietrich, also a biologist, was conscripted into the German Army, and eventually abandoned the family. Herzog does not like to speak of him.
Herzog adored his mother, who died in the nineteen-eighties. Elisabeth was "very courageous, " he said. "She raised three boys on her own, in desperate circumstances." They had no money for mattresses, so she made pallets by stuffing linen sacks with dried ferns. When Herzog developed a fascination with guns after discovering an old cache of Nazi weapons in the forest, she demonstrated how to shoot a pistol. She understood his impatience with traditional schoolwork--as a teen-ager, Herzog, an enthusiast for American matinée fare such as "Dr. Fu Manchu" and "Zorro, " had already begun writing screenplays--and secured him an apprenticeship at a photographer's lab, in Munich. Later, she gave a German newspaper a quote that Herzog considers the most precise summation of his talent. "Everything goes into him, " she said. "If it comes out, it comes out transformed." Herzog remains close to his siblings: Tilbert, his older brother, an international-finance executive, who now spends much of his time on a yacht off Spain; Lucki, his younger brother, who lives in Germany, and has produced many of Herzog's films; and Sigrid, his sister, an acting teacher, who also lives in Germany.
Herzog recalls his childhood with a curiously anthropological cast, as if he were the Alpine equivalent of a Trobriand Islander. He loves to say that he never made a phone call until he was seventeen, did not see a banana until he was twelve, and did not watch a movie until he was eleven. The film was a documentary about Eskimos, shown at school; Herzog was appalled by their inept igloo-construction technique. Like many children in Sachrang, he played winter sports and wanted to be a champion ski jumper. He gave up the sport, however, when his best friend fractured his skull while they were practicing alone on an isolated ramp. "I thought that if I moved him an inch, his brain would spill out, he was so badly injured, " he recalled. In 1973, Herzog made a documentary about the sport, "The Great Ecstasy of the Wood-Carver Steiner": in it, he clips off the landings from his slow-motion footage, creating an uncanny sensation of human flight.
Growing up in Sachrang, Herzog developed a passion for wandering; as he grew older, he sometimes roamed so far that he had to spend the night in an empty chalet. (He says he's great at picking locks.) In the "Minnesota Declaration, " a whimsical manifesto that he presented at a Minneapolis film festival seven years ago, he says, "Tourism is sin, walking on foot virtue." Herzog believes that modern life has disconnected humans from their most elemental pleasures. His films, accordingly, attempt to connect modern cinemagoers to their prelapsarian selves: the emotions are always primal, and landscape is integral to the drama. "You will never see people talking on the phone, driving in a car, or exchanging ironic jokes in my films, " he said. "It is always bigger, deeper." He avows that his films expose "the ecstatic truth" of mankind.
He is gently messianic in his anachronistic habits. In 1974, upon hearing that the film critic Lotte Eisner, a friend, had fallen gravely ill in France, he walked from Munich to Paris to visit her. (She survived the three weeks that it took him to get there--and lived nine more years besides.) Four years later, he published "Of Walking in Ice, " a celebration of his travail. As always, he is an astute observer--crossing a field, his feet "immediately collect pounds of heavy sticky clods of earth"--yet the book feels overwrought and musty. ("A cornfield in winter, " he intones, "is a field called Death.") Tilbert has said that his brother "will openly declare that he writes the best prose since Kleist, " but cinema serves Herzog better: it forces his Romantic sensibilities into a modern frame.
Things rarely turn out well when the swashbuckling side of Herzog takes over. Several years ago, he returned to the Alps to ski with some old friends. One day, he sped down a notoriously treacherous run; when he boasted about it that night, nobody believed him. The next day, he insisted on doing it again--and, predictably, he wiped out. "I nearly died, " he told me, and he still has difficulty turning his neck.
Why does he do such things? Herzog does not want to know the answer. "I think that psychoanalysis is one of the great evils of civilization, even worse than the Spanish Inquisition, " he told me. "At least the Inquisition was about keeping something together. Analysis is only about taking a person apart. I would rather die than see an analyst."
Herzog's accidents and misfortunes have been widely catalogued, yet a complete concordance seems impossible: that afternoon in Los Angeles, he revealed that he once jumped out of a third-floor window in Pittsburgh--no fire, just fooling around!--and recalled that, during a recent visit to Spain, Tilbert had, on a lark, set his shirt on fire with a cigar. (He was saved "by a pitcher of lemonade, " he added triumphantly.) Not surprisingly, Herzog has been accused of being a serial fabulist. He hasn't helped matters by admitting that he "intensifies" his documentaries. "Lessons of Darkness, " his spectral 1992 film about the apocalyptic fires that raged after the Gulf War, begins with a bogus epigraph, allegedly by Pascal: "The collapse of the stellar universe will occur--like creation--in grandiose splendor." (The "pseudo-quote, " he has said, elevates the film from "mere reportage" to "the realm of poetry.") He frequently supplies his subjects with dialogue. In "The White Diamond, " which came out last year, a Guyanese villager, interviewed on the edge of a clamorous waterfall, establishes his mystical temperament when he says to the camera, "I cannot hear what you say for the thunder that you are." Herzog swiped the line from "Cobra Verde."
Herzog says that he "stylizes" his documentaries only when the subject agrees that an invention aptly illuminates his character. "Grizzly Man, " which was made after the death of Timothy Treadwell, contains no fictions, he said, for "there was no possibility of collaboration." Yet Herzog's insistence that there is no meaningful difference between his features and his documentaries--"In both cases, I am a storyteller, " he likes to say--offends advocates of cinéma vérité and probably explains why "Grizzly Man, " despite receiving terrific reviews, was snubbed by the Academy Awards. Herzog, of course, relishes tweaking the traditionalists. "There is just a very shallow truth in facts, " he told me. "Otherwise, the phone directory would be the Book of Books."
Such proclamations notwithstanding, Herzog's personal stories usually check out, allowing for some measure of exaggeration. (Tilbert confirmed the lemonade incident.) As if by design, Herzog's life is overstuffed with drama. Weird things happen to him even when he's at home in California. One day this February, he left a voice message. "I have something amusing to tell you, " he said, teasingly. When I called him back, he announced, "I was shot today!"
He tore into his latest tale: "A BBC television crew came to see me in Laurel Canyon. They wanted to interview me for the British premiére of 'Grizzly Man.' I didn't want them to film right outside my house, so we went up to Skyline Drive. In the middle of the interview, I was shot with a rifle by someone standing on his balcony. I seem to attract the clinically insane." A rifle? "Well, it must have been an air rifle or something. I was very slightly injured; it was a very small-calibre thing, I suppose. Also, I had a catalogue in my jacket pocket, which protected me. The bullet hit my abdomen, right next to the belt, but it did not penetrate into my intestines. I thought the camera had cracked and burned me. I flinched for less than a second and continued my thoughts, and the BBC people started to duck and run away. I was bleeding into my underwear! Quite often, I have the feeling that when I tell about some strange incident, people don't believe me. But here it is, documented on camera. Proof!"
Two days later, an article appeared in the Los Angeles Times. The actor Joaquin Phoenix had flipped his car on a drive down the serpentine roads of Laurel Canyon. "I remember this knocking on the passenger window, " Phoenix told the Times. "There was this German voice saying, 'Just relax.'I said to myself, That's Werner Herzog!'" Phoenix, who was unharmed, went on, "I got out of the car and I said, 'Thank you.' And he was gone."
One afternoon in Thailand, Herzog sat with his wife on a slab of granite that jutted into a swift, rock-crowded river. "Sweetie, I have to do some wading, " Herzog said, patting Lena's knee in farewell. Mercifully, it was a cloud-filled day: Herzog and Peter Zeitlinger, his cinematographer, had taken to calling the Thai sun die gelbe Sau--"the yellow swine." Bale and Zahn stood on the other shore, sixty feet away, poised to film a sequence with Dengler's homemade raft: the two escapees discover, nearly too late, that they're headed for a waterfall. Herzog didn't like the pretty way that the production assistants had laurelled Zahn with vines, as if he were the Athlete Dying Young.
Lena joked, "I wonder sometimes if it's strange that I've gotten used to it: 'Oh, there's Werner standing in the middle of the river. Just another day at the office!'" She was concerned, however, about an infection that had developed in Herzog's left toe. He had refused her repeated offers of a bandage. A week or so later, the toenail fell off, and Herzog began covering it--with yellow duct tape.
Herzog looked a bit unsteady in the water, which reached the belt on his khakis. As he stretched his arms out for balance, Lena informed me that her husband was unusually low on energy that day. In what Herzog called a "signal of solidarity, " he was dieting with Bale and Zahn. (By the end of the shoot, in October, he had lost almost thirty pounds.) It was an ethic for Herzog: anything he asked the actors to do, he volunteered to do as well, including eating maggots and handling snakes. If he established a raw, physical mood on the set, Herzog believed, Bale and Zahn wouldn't feel self-conscious. The crew members, by and large, saw this credo less generously. Herzog, they felt, was unwilling to accept the fundamental paradox of filmmaking: creating a gripping movie often requires weeks of boredom. In their view, Herzog was intent on undergoing his own survivalist drama. A half-dozen crew members shared a jest that Zeitlinger had made: "Werner's not really a filmmaker. He's a little boy."
Zeitlinger was kneeling by the river's edge, his linen trousers still improbably white. He chuckled when he was asked about the remark, but added that he was just being silly; he has worked on eight Herzog films, and he said that a consistent aesthetic guided the director's method. "When I was just a viewer of Werner's feature films, I was always wondering why they are so imperfect, why so often things do not mesh together, and you see things that you usually try to avoid, " he said. "Now I understand; he doesn't want to have it this way--perfect. He wouldn't care it, in a single scene, there was sun and then not sun! This is the only thing I try to maintain, for this would disturb even this documentary reality. Any other mistake, I don't care. He wants to have it imperfect so that it gets a kick of feeling like a documentary--that you somehow couldn't manage to film it better. It makes everything onscreen seem real." He did sometimes find Herzog's approach perplexing. Though Herzog had spent his life making movies, he said, "he cannot accept the illusion of filmmaking."
Zeitlinger peered into an Austrian tripod camera that he had set up on the shore. It was connected to a digital monitor. "It's hard to know how everything really looks when you're focussed on keeping a moving raft in frame, " he said.
A crew member glanced at the monitor and shook his head. "Werner doesn't want to use it," he reported.
"Oh, just cover it with a banana leaf, " Susanna Lenton, the script supervisor, suggested. "Werner will never notice it." Within seconds, the monitor was camouflaged--a trick that would be repeated often during the shoot. Harry Knapp, who replaced Josef Lieck as first assistant director, developed various ruses to distract Herzog, in order to take footage that he deemed unnecessary. ("Look at these wild mimosa plants, Wemer") Knapp, an athletic-looking man who wore baseball caps and frequently called himself the "film-school guy" and Herzog "the famous guy, " said that, before long, even the actors were in on the game. More than once, Herzog figured out what was going on and stood directly in front of the second unit's camera, to ruin a shot. "You're blocking the audience, " Knapp would say. Later, Knapp told me that ten per cent of the footage that Herzog would view in the editing room--closeups, backup takes, establishing shots--had been filmed on the sly.
Herzog arrived at the other side of the river and grabbed a few vines from a production assistant, tossing them pell-mell over Zahn's prone body; he then stuck his dripping fingers in his mouth, emitting a startlingly loud whistle. "I need some more vines, he bellowed.
A few minutes later, he was helping the stunt crew guide the raft to various starting positions. The first takes were frustrating: parts of the river were shallow, and rocks kept impeding the raft's forward motion. Bale and Zahn looked like Kinski in the final shot of "Aguirre"--trapped on a river that appears to have stopped flowing. Herzog and the stunt people tromped around the riverbed until they found a deeper path for the raft to fellow. Some crew members worried that the sequence would still look slow on film, but Herzog was content. "I don't want the river to be flowing extremely fast here, " he explained. "I want a buildup that surges to a thunderous climax, as in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony."
Bale and Zahn were dispatched downriver from the new starting point, and the sequence worked better. "Perfect, " Herzog said. He waved his hands at Zeitlinger. Herzog was now going to shoot some closeup footage while flowing downstream with the actors. He stripped off his shirt and tossed it on the riverbank. His right deltoid had a faded black tattoo of a smiling skull. "It's 'Singing Death, '" Lena explained.
"What are you doing, Werner? Werner?" Bale cried. Bale is as polite as Kinski was rude, but fissures were developing. One afternoon, Dengler's helicopter rescue was being filmed, and, during the setup, Herzog, immersed in the excitement of blocking the climactic scene, dismissed Knapp's concern that Bale could be hit by a heavy winch while being lifted inside the aircraft. "I am not going to feckin' die for you, Werner!" Bale exploded, his native Welsh accent emerging for the first time on the set. "You got that?" (Herzog apologized, and Bale was gracious. "It's O.K., " he said. "I didn't sign up for a cakewalk.")
Zeitlinger turned off the tripod camera and prepared to join Herzog. "We have a camera that's protected inside a Lucite box, which allows you to place it right in the water, " he said. "So he could get the shot without any physical contact. But that's not what he wants. He wants an adventure." Zeitlinger had developed a severe cough, and he took a swig of an opium-infused Thai elixir, ominously labelled "BROWN MIXTURE." He then attached a large Styrofoam flotation device to his bottom and waded over to Herzog, his loose outfit ballooning portentously, in the manner of a Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia. The two men attached themselves to a rope that had been suspended in the water, parallel to the shore; they would hook themselves on to the rope and head downriver with the Lucite-covered camera, alongside the raft.
Knapp, who kept muttering to other crew members on his black headset, was annoyed by the spectacle. "There's an easier way to shoot this, " he said, adding sarcastically, "He has this concept of the camera being 'part' of the characters."
Lena could sense the contrary mood on the set. "Werner is always the only one who believes in the dancing chicken, " she said. "The whole crew disagrees, it goes in anyway, and then in the movie it makes perfect sense." She was referring to the surpassingly strange ending of "Stroszek, " a mordant 1977 film about a hapless East German who, upon being kicked out of a mental institution, immigrates to America with a prostitute. The naïve Stroszek fails to get a foothold in America--even his mobile home is repossessed--and, in a bathetic parody of gangster epics like "Bonnie and Clyde, " he becomes the feeblest of outlaws, robbing a barber at gunpoint and stealing a turkey from a supermarket. Pursued by police, he escapes to an empty amusement hall, where he drops coins in a glass cage containing a live chicken; colored lights start blinking furiously, causing the bird to skitter back and forth. Stroszek leaves with his gun, presumably to kill himself, but Herzog returns the viewer to the cage. The film ends with a mercilessly long shot of the horrifying, hilarious chicken. The metaphor may be ham-handed--Stroszek is a helpless creature trapped by capitalism!--but because the surreal image comes out of nowhere and remains obdurately fixed to the screen, it sticks in the viewer's brain, giving the picture the afterglow of a fever dream. The crew on "Stroszek" hated Herzog's chicken idea--"They said it was total *beep* " he recalled--and some refused to come to the set that day. He now considers the sequence one of the strongest he has ever shot.
From the riverbank, it was hard to see if Zeitlinger was capturing anything worthwhile: the camera sloshed up and down like a rubber duck in a toddler's tub. The scene called to mind something that Lieck had said the morning that he quit. "I have formed this theory that Werner has, probably from mid-puberty, been trying very hard to die a grand, poetic death, " he told me. "Whenever there is anything dangerous, you can be sure he'll run out to do it first. But I think he will have his grand, poetic death in a different way. I think he will live to be a hundred and five. He'll have tried all his life to get chopped to pieces or fall from a helicopter, and, in the end, he will die on his pillowcase."
After half an hour, Herzog and his crew dragged themselves out of the water. The director was in a merry mood. He displayed his hands and observed, "My fingers look like those of somebody who just died of asphyxiation." He then offered a vivid recap: "The first take was comically disastrous. The water was strong, and Peter's camera wobbled uncontrollably and teetered over. I was behind him and helped him to reorient himself, but it was too late. We capsized together." Subsequent takes were better, he said, adding, "There may be a couple of good moments in the end." Herzog later told me that, while filming "Fitzcarraldo, " he had woken up before sunrise for twelve days in a row, hoping to lure a fish into swallowing a wad of cash that he dropped into the water. "Finally, we got one to do it, " he said. "All for a five-second image."
After Zeitlinger dried off, he offered his own account of the shoot. "Werner kept holding on to me so he would not be swept away, " he said. "I was trying to get rid of him, and I knocked the camera over.
As the "Rescue Dawn" shoot neared its end, Herzog sent notes via e-mail; they were invariably stippled with words like "brink, " "precipice, " and "abyss." Crew members confirmed that the set had grown increasingly troubled. Chris Camel, the stuntman who had injured his ribs, burned his face in a scene depicting Dengler's plane crash. Although American and British crew members were finally given money, many said that they had not been paid all they were promised, and the producers evidently infuriated Thai contractors by ignoring bills. The entire production crew got turned away from a hotel in Krabi, after the proprietors got wind of these complaints. (Steve Marlton claims that the hotel had suddenly raised its rates, and that all other bills had been paid.) An accountant arrived on the set, then immediately quit, shocked by the financial mess. Midway through the shoot, thirty Thai crew members quit en masse, citing the production's "cashflow problems." (Marlton says of those who resigned, "They had the gall to tell me that I needed to put a million dollars in a Thai bank that they could withdraw from. I told them to get *beep* and they walked.")
Meanwhile, Harry Knapp, who said that he considers Herzog "a poet, " became the liaison between the director and the producers. When Herzog resisted shooting multiple angles of one scene, he warned him, "When we have to change the film because of audience notes, you won't have the footage to do it." Once, Knapp refused Herzog's request to return to a remote location, in order to capture a single elusive image of a fish. (In the scene, Dengler is hallucinating with hunger.) "If we lose this detail, it will never matter, " Knapp told him. "This does not move the story forward." Late in the shoot, Herzog grew hostile. Although his script had described, among other things, Dengler's nails being jammed with razor-sharp bamboo, Herzog sensed that the producers were overly keen on such "Rambo"-style luridness; he refused to shoot any scenes of torture. Knapp felt that Herzog needed to respect his screenplay. After a "blowout fight, " Knapp recalled, Herzog gave in, though he kept the moments of violence short.
A few days before shooting was scheduled to end, Thailand's governor of tourism revoked the production's work permits. Marlton had refused to pay the fee demanded by a contractor that had arranged the rental of military equipment and provided the local crew, claiming that he was being overcharged. In retaliation, the contractor had successfully petitioned the government to close the shoot. Over the next few days, Marlton and eight crew members were prevented from boarding planes at the Bangkok airport. Marlton was informed by the Thai police that he would be allowed to leave only if he paid five hundred thousand dollars in taxes that the production supposedly owed. Herzog, however, eluded capture: "I had two valid passports, and juggled them at a critical moment," he told me.
Marlton paid a substantial sum and flew home, leaving the other crew members behind. After a weeklong standoff, Gibraltar agreed to pay Thai authorities more money, and the others were allowed to go home. In an e-mail, Marlton said that he had been "squeezed" by the Thai police. He added, "At first, I was appalled, angry, and defiant, but I succumbed to their system." Soon afterward, Knapp was arrested in Bangkok, on the ground that "Rescue Dawn" had violated work-permit regulations; he spent eight hours in a detention center, and criminal charges were filed against him. Marlton posted his bail, but Knapp still faces legal proceedings.
Meanwhile, "Rescue Dawn" remained in a precarious state. In November, Herzog spent two days in Alameda, California, shooting the final scenes. He then asked for ten weeks to edit the film. He would present his cut, and the producers would decide whether to release it or demand changes. On the second day of editing, Herzog was kicked out of his small editing suite, in West Hollywood. The editing studio required payment up front, and Gibraltar didn't have the money on hand.
In April, Gibraltar secured postproduction money, and Herzog was finally paid the director's fee he had been promised. Herzog resumed editing, and he was joined by Knapp. Although Knapp said that "Rescue Dawn" was "Herzog's movie" and that his primary role was to "lend support, " he would also remind Herzog that certain choices--such as trimming action sequences in favor of dialogue-heavy scenes in the prison camp--would likely displease the producers.
Herzog was cautiously optimistic. He had realized too late that, as he told me, the producers "would have rather put me out of the project if they could have." But he wasn't altogether naïve about Hollywood politics. He reminded me that the powerful Endeavor Agency, which represents Bale and Zahn, was on his side. "Christian wants a quality film, not an action movie, " he said. "And the agency wants their client to be happy." Endeavor, he implied, could make life difficult for Gibraltar if it tried to release a bastardized version of "Rescue Dawn."
He also was heartened by what he had seen in his brief visit to the editing suite. His footage was "very, very, strong, " he said. Sifting through his reels on the computer, he had immediately spotted and dismissed various second-unit takes--such as a shot of Bale screaming in slo-mo despair, while gunfire blasts around him, as in "Platoon." Much of the remaining footage had the bracing, off-rhythm feel of a Herzog film. In a scene in which Bale appears to eat a live snake, a single-take shot made clear that the emaciated actor had straggled heartily with a writhing beast. The sequence shot in the river was excitingly disorienting, bobbing the viewer up and down. Shots of the Thai jungle felt palpably constrictive--at one point, Bale and Zahn, after clambering up a steep hill, get their first glimpse of a wider view. The vista before them, partially obscured by branches, is an Edenic blanket of green, but the effect is deflating: this prison cannot be escaped.
The sequence was shot the day after the decapitation scene. Herzog had discovered that there was nothing pending on the shooting schedule, and he seized the chance to flee the Apparatus. He got in a silver van with his wife, Bale, Zahn, Zeitlinger, and a camera assistant. The van's driver had decorated his vehicle in an weirdly apt style: its exterior and interior were plastered with Batman logos.
Herzog told the driver to start driving "toward Burma." The driver, looking a bit unsure, set off down the highway. The sound engineer and a few Thai crewhands followed in a small car. Herzog had explored the border area earlier in the summer, and he had pinpointed a splendid spot to shoot the vista scene. He hadn't, of course, marked it on a map. "I am just following my own geographic instincts, " he explained.
An hour and a half later, Herzog still had not found his spot. We passed steep hills terraced with corn plants. Nobody commented on the cheery rainbows glowing over the misty valleys; in a Herzogian world, rainbows would not exist.
At one point, Bale asked quietly, "Werner, does the driver speak English?"
"No, " Herzog said, unperturbed.
"He has a G.P.S. in his head, " Zeitlinger whispered to me. "Do not worry."
Herzog was savoring the hunt. He propped his muddy bare feet on the bench where Bale was sitting, put on some mirrored glasses, and stared out the window, studying the landscape. We drove for two hours more, looking for Herzog's vista. The sun was getting low. "We just need a little bit of luck, " Herzog said with excitement. "I think that ten minutes away there is a spot where we may have some luck."
Half an hour before sundown, a towering escarpment came into view. "Here, " Herzog said. The Batvan stopped, and Herzog began walking up a side approach to the summit. "We must go quickly, " he urged, disappearing in the trees.
The crest was densely forested, but there was a thin opening that showed a ribbon of mountains receding into the distance. Herzog began giving instructions to Bale and Zahn, who, exhausted from the climb, listened in silence. "A storm is coming, " Herzog observed, pointing toward distant clouds. "There is no time to waste."
Zeitlinger wanted to set up a tracking shot; the faraway terrain might look blurry in an unsteady handheld shot. Herzog humored him for a few minutes, until he noticed a mountain that was backlit with a penumbra of golden light. "It's a high-intensity landscape, " he said. "We must do it now." The dolly track was left unfinished.
The sound engineer hadn't yet carted up his heavy equipment. "We will dub it in later, " he said. "These conditions will last for five minutes at most."
"It's sublime, " Lena said, while taking photographs. "It's very Caspar Friedrich."
Bale and Zahn walked fifty feet down the hill, hiked up again, and said a few lines that Herzog improvised.
"I'm going to get you out of here, Duane, " Bale said to Zahn. Then they stared out at the impossibly vast view, and their faces crumpled.
"Have the camera plow past them, through the trees, and into the distance, " Herzog told Zeitlinger.
At the end of several takes, Herzog cried, "Cut!" He smeared the sweat off his brow with his arm. He grabbed Zeitlinger's shoulder, and pointed to the dark horizon. "Thank God, I forced it, " he said. "Look. The glowing mountain is gone." ”
New Yorker, Issue of April 24, 2006, Daniel Zalewski