Dengler’s ”Dawn”

Werner Herzog Returns to the Wilderness to Examine Civilization

On The Town | Mazin Elfehaid | December 2007 / January 2008

Christian Bale playing fighter pilot Dieter Dengler in the new movie „Rescue Dawn“. (Photo: MGM)

It seems you can’t keep German filmmaker Werner Herzog out of the wilderness.  In the summer of 2005, the famed creator of Grizzly Man and Fitzcarraldo went back to the jungle and has, again, returned with a masterpiece.

Set in Laos in 1965, Rescue Dawn tells the true story of German-American fighter pilot Dieter Dengler (played by Christian Bale), who is shot down during his first-ever mission and is taken prisoner by the Pathet Lao.

The film is based on Herzog’s 1997 award winning documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly.  Dengler, who grew up in Germany during the Second World War, saw his town nearly leveled by American fighter planes.  Despite the great destruction, Dengler was amazed by the awesome machines and eventually emigrated to the United States to join the Air Force, never expecting, nor wishing, to see any combat (few people were talking about war with Southeast-Asia in 1965).

With what might have delivered a typical Hollywood war film, Herzog methodically strips away all stereotypes of heroism and high-flying morals to create characters that are at once flawed and human. Dieter Dengler is a man with, above all, the desire and know-how to escape his jungle prison, loyal to his friends but by no means perfect, making bumbling mistakes and at one point even turning against his mates.

The film starts with Dengler’s mission, highly classified because still legally "peacetime," with only a small squadron of planes initiating a pinpoint strike.  Captured almost immediately after his crash, he is tortured and transported for days across Laos, until he is placed in a small prison camp inhabited by five prisoners – two Americans and three Thais – and 6 Guards.

Made only of bamboo and rattan, the camp itself seems relatively easy to break out of, especially for Dengler whose father was a locksmith and from whom he learned how to pick locks and break out of handcuffs.  However, the real prison proves to be the Jungle, hot and dry before the rainy season, making tracking easy and dehydration a very real danger.

Moreover, Dengler must convince the others, some of whom have been there for more than two years, that escape is necessary.  Hatching a plan that works, Dengler and his fellow prisoners manage to escape.  They then split up into three groups, with Dengler and his friend, Air Force pilot Duane Martin (played by Steve Zahn), trying to follow smaller rivers towards the Mekong, which they hope will lead them to American troops.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Dengler is his ability to look beyond people’s assigned roles and bring out their humanity.

"He’s tied up, he’s been dragged along, he’s been beaten but he’s still interested in, ‘I wonder what they’re cooking over there? Oh, she looks nice.  She’s pretty isn’t she? He looks like a nice guy.  I could probably have a good conversation with him.’  It’s just the most bizarre outlook on life," Christian Bale told Rebecca Murray in a recent interview for

Bale, a method actor, who brings himself close to his characters, taking on their whole lives like a second skin, seems perfectly matched to Herzog’s hard-knocks approach to filmmaking.  Where Herzog strives for realism by filming deep in the jungle, Bale strives for realism by starving himself, wrestling with and biting into a live snake, and eating maggots on camera, giving his character a depth and realism that few achieve. (Bale reportedly lost 15 kilos for the shoot—a fair amount, but almost nothing compared to the 54 kilos he reduced himself to for his role in The Machinist).

By allowing Dengler to humanize his captors, Herzog manages to capture what drives these soldiers, even though they actively dehumanize their prisoners.  By revealing them driven not so much by evil from within, as by their environment and the political climate of the time, Herzog is making a powerful statement that goes right to the heart of recent European and world history.

From  a technical standpoint, Rescue Dawn shows Herzog at the top of his game –

although he hasn’t released a feature since 2002.  It seems he takes pleasure in throwing the audience into the unknown, along with Dengler, and through a combination of absolutely stunning cinematography, editing and sound design he manages to not only create a savage and cruel jungle on screen but in the heart of every single person watching the film.

In typical Herzog style, the film is straightforward and Spartan, with few cuts and an "in your face" shooting method.  By stripping away any excesses and focusing only on the physical reality of the moment, Herzog has turned what could have been a plot driven film into a character piece.

Though the film has been well received, with a rare 90% rating on Rotten Tomatos (a popular internet site that averages reviews from all major critics), it hasn’t gone without criticism – notably from Jerry DeBruin (brother of inmate Gene DeBruin) and Pisindhi Indradat, the final survivor of the prison camp.

According to DeBruin, who has started the website, his brother was misrepresented, and the film has taken major liberties in plot details, including erasing Dengler’s heavy German accent (in the film it’s almost American), which made the other prisoners mistrust him.

"I understand that they love Gene and want to think the best of him, but sometimes when men are put in extraordinary situations, they behave in ways that even the people closest to them wouldn’t expect," Herzog said in response to the DeBruin family in the Filmspotting podcast.

Herzog, who was good friends with Dengler until his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2001, said that although he took certain liberties. he’s sure the real life Dengler would be happy with the film.

And while there have been attempts to politicize the film, with MGM releasing it in the United States on the 4th of July and conservative bloggers such as Debbie Schlussel lauding it as "patriotic," the story remains rooted in a tale that is fundamentally human.The film itself however is untouched by politics.  Herzog returns to the wilderness and, as he so often does, tells the story of western man outside of the bubble, forcing us to reexamine what it means to be civilized.  The politics of the time take a backseat, just as the story of Aguirre is about the man first and the conquistador second.

A film of this caliber is a rare treat, and a must for any fan of Werner Herzog.

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    the vienna review December 2007 / January 2008