"Filmmaking is athletics over aesthetics," Werner Herzog once said, and his astonishing body of work suggests a director with the physical and psychological fortitude of an ironman triathlete. He landed in a brutal Cameroon prison while chasing desert mirages for Fata Morgana (1970), traveled to a volcanic Caribbean island on the brink of explosion in La Soufrière (1977), and persuaded his crew to drag a steamboat over a mountain in the Amazon for Fitzcarraldo (1982). More recently, he pondered the awful fate of self-styled eco-warrior Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man (2005). The filmmaker's attraction to extremes—of climate, circumstance, and human endurance—reaches an apex in the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), which followed the former U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler back to the Laotian jungle where he made a miraculous escape from a POW camp during the American war with Vietnam.
Herzog now revisits the harrowing Little Dieter story with the feature film Rescue Dawn, shot in northwest Thailand and starring Christian Bale as Dengler, who survived a plane crash, torture, and starvation before he was rescued in 1966. To watch the two films back-to-back is not only to soak up Herzog's epic fascination with the cruelties of man and nature, but also to rediscover how nimbly his films elude easy categorization in their pursuit of what he calls "ecstatic truth." That is to say: There is fiction, there is nonfiction, and then there is Herzog.
Dengler, who died in 2001, is a subject particularly close to the filmmaker's heart. Both men were born in Hitler's Germany and grew up cold, hungry, and fatherless amid what Herzog calls in Little Dieter a "dreamscape of the surreal." Dengler started on his improbable path to Laos during an Allied bombing raid on his family's Black Forest village: One plane swept so close to the ground that the young boy briefly, fatefully, made eye contact with the pilot. "From that moment on," Dengler tells the camera, "little Dieter needed to fly."
This split second of epiphany belongs wholly to Dengler, but Little Dieter is also full of flourishes of Herzog's own devising. In one scene, Dengler repeatedly opens and closes the front door of his home, a simple task that he says took on great significance after his months of captivity. But what appears to be a post-traumatic ritual was actually Herzog's idea, as he later revealed. This was "a scene I created from what [Dengler] had casually mentioned to me, that after his experiences in the jungle he truly appreciated the feeling of being able to open a door whenever he wanted to," he explains to Paul Cronin in the book Herzog on Herzog.
Herzog also staged the opening scene of Little Dieter, when Dengler visits a tattoo parlor and comments on a design of Death driving a team of horses, and later places Dengler before a tank of jellyfish and gives him the line, "This is basically what death looks like to me." "He had to become an actor playing himself," the director says in Herzog on Herzog. "Everything in the film is authentic Dieter, but to intensify him it is all re-orchestrated, scripted, and rehearsed."
British filmmaker John Grierson called documentary "the creative treatment of actuality." This elastic definition is useful when considering the many liberties Herzog takes in Little Dieter and other docs—in Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), he supplied Fini Straubinger, the film's deaf-blind subject, with scripted lines and fictitious childhood memories. These kinds of embellishments, Herzog maintains, push past the factual—what he calls "a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants"—and into a realm where a film can illuminate an entire inner world rather than merely reproduce external realities.