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Herzog has his cake and eats it

Posted at 7:25 PM on July 19, 2007 by Euan Kerr

How many ways can you tell a horrible story? Werner Herzog has now proven the answer is at least two.

His new film "Rescue Dawn" is a fictionalized feature of a story he already told in his riveting documentary "Little Dieter needs to fly." Like it's precursor "Dawn" relates the tale of what happened to German-born Dieter Dengler, a US Navy pilot shot down during the secret bombings of Laos in 1965. Each story explores the horrors of what happened to him in a prison camp and during his subsequent escape.

What is fascinating is how Herzog takes the story and gives it a slightly different twist in each film. In fact he even uses some of the same archival footage of bombed villages and a strange survival film which is so overacted it becomes surreal.

In "Little Dieter" Dengler tells his own story from locations in Germany, the US, and Laos. He slips easily between the past and the present. He drops little bombshell details into his conversation such as how he still hears his dead comrades complaining about having cold feet. He describes the moment when as a boy in a small German town he looked out of an attic window just as a low-flying Allied pilot zoomed by at his eye-level, guns blazing, and canopy open. Dengler claimed the pilot looked right at him, and that was the moment when he knew he had to be a pilot.

In "Rescue" Herzog has to fit all these details in the narrative, and does so effortlessly. Christian Bale captures Dengler's obsessive eccentricity, which keeps him going despite horrendous maltreatment and torture by his captors. Minnesota's own Steve Zahn is also superb as his fellow prisoner Duane. As both of them descend into the fog of starvation, both lay their emotions bare.

"Dieter" is a much more brutal film as Dengler describes what he went through, but while the "Rescue Dawn" story has been sanitized, the film is harder to watch as you get to see the horrors unfold.

Movie scholars often talk about how Werner Herzog is self-referential in his moviemaking. Now we have concrete evidence it's true. Both films are worth seeing.

July 2007
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