Francois Truffaut–arguably one of the most influential filmmakers/theorists in post-60s cinema given his contributions to French New Wave and co-creation of “Auteur Theory”– purportedly called German director Werner Herzog “the most important film director alive.” This is largely because all of Herzog’s movies feel like pieces of his entire filmography, as if they’re all different approaches to various themes and interests of this man, who has made dozens of films and was a favorite of arguably the most influential film critic of all time, Roger Ebert.
What are those themes? Well, to name a few: larger-than-life protagonists, madness, the inability to overcome nature, etc. Herzog’s movies invariably have main characters that wish to do the impossible, whether it’s dragging a steamboat over a mountain or taking over the Ecuadorian jungle, and usually these wishes conflict with societal norms and nature itself. Watching his movies is an experience that cannot be summarized, at least not in a cursory way by some college kid, but I will attempt to be concise: a Herzog film is an experience, the witnessing of something so massive in scope and ambition that awe-inspiring barely suffices to describe it.So, in many ways, I think that Truffaut has a good point. Truffaut also has a very commonly-referenced quote that refers to war films: “There is no such thing as an anti-war movie.” He claims that it is nigh impossible to make an anti-war movie because the act of capturing war on film will almost always glorify it. But now we are at an impasse: what happens when the man who loves to take on the impossible tries to make a supposedly impossible film?
Rescue Dawn (2006)
The Plot: Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a German-American Navy Pilot crashes in the Vietnam jungle just before the war’s full-scale escalation. He is captured and brought to a camp, where he attempts to formulate an escape plan with the downtrodden fellow inmates. Dengler wants to return home, to the country he loves, and will do anything to succeed.
Now, lest I mislead you all, I will say that calling this movie an anti-war film is unfair, as none of Herzog’s movies really match a particular genre. Rescue Dawn does not attempt to be Platoon or All Quiet on the Western Front (the latter of which might very well contradict Truffaut’s claim more directly). Instead, this movie circumvents the difficulties of not glorifying war by making it instead about Dengler, who is absolutely a Herzogian protagonist. Herzog’s interests are in the character, not the politics.
Still, the depiction of a military man in wartime is harrowing. The mission that takes Dengler down is not filmed as a brave feat of manly action, but rather a nerve-wracking act of destruction. Dengler’s attempts to escape and life in prison are difficult. His friends die suddenly, he’s forced to humiliate himself, and the jungle is, like much of nature in Herzog’s movies, daunting. But all of these things are not a commentary on war, but rather a representation of what Dengler has to go through, which stems from the real-life Dieter Dengler on whom this movie is based. Herzog in some ways makes an anti-war movie by making a movie that takes place during wartime but isn’t about it. Instead, he is concerned with people and reality. It’s hard to focus on these two things and not make a movie that doesn’t glorify war.
Rescue Dawn‘s success largely stems from its atypical depiction of a familiar subject: the prisoner escape. The earliest example of this genre-type that I can think of is The Great Escape (1963), but I’m sure there are dozens. Herzog circumvents any feelings of been-there-done-that by ignoring typical narrative rhythms and norms. Several main characters drop from the plot never to be seen again. The soundtrack never mirrors the action, but instead invokes a constant sense of dread. The landscape becomes a character, capturing Dengler in its vastness.
All of this succeeds because the plot is unpredictable. I think that, at this juncture, I ought to admit something: I don’t even particularly enjoy watching Herzog’s feature films, and I especially dislike most films about war. I respect Herzog as a filmmaker and a person (seriously, he has some of the greatest quotes and best stories of all time) but his movies don’t usually interest me. His documentaries tend to be distilled versions of his fascination with big-dreamers, so I vastly prefer them. But Rescue Dawn really resonated with me regardless because, by defying our expectations, it holds our interests. Hell, even some of the performances are surprising, like Steve Zahn as a crazed fellow inmate. Who knew Zahn could act so well?
I’ve been looking to write about Herzog for some time, as he’s perhaps one of the most impressive directors still working. Rescue Dawn, to my surprise, has ended up being the movie I’ve been looking for because it encapsulates much of what I love about the man. His fascination with characters translates to his stories, and in Rescue Dawn he manages to make a movie that takes place during one of the most infamous conflicts in American history, yet manages to escape the confines of political rhetoric on a touchy subject. Rescue Dawn, like many of Herzog’s movies, deserves to be seen, and whether you hate or love war movies, you should absolutely check this one out.