July 2, 2007
In pursuit of his visions, German writer and director Werner Herzog, 64, has traveled to some of the most daunting places on Earth—the headwaters of the Amazon River, an active volcano on Guadeloupe, the Sahara, and Antarctica. His latest effort, Rescue Dawn (released July 4) is a Vietnam biopic about German-American POW Dieter Dengler (portrayed by actor Christian Bale), who was imprisoned in Laos in 1966 before escaping through the jungle. Adventure spoke with the filmmaker by phone from his home in Los Angeles.
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You have traveled extensively, often to extreme places. What about a place attracts your attention?
When I was young, I wanted to go to the Congo, after its independence when it lapsed into some forms of barbarism. I wanted to understand how Germany could have, in such a short span of time, lapsed into a barbaric culture. And I wanted to understand what triggers it, how is it possible, how secure our civilization is.
Are you drawn to extreme places? Besides conflict zones, the volcano La Soufriére comes to mind.
Well I was just on another volcano in the Antarctic—Mount Arabis. I have a fascination with volcanoes. You get a clear feeling that our life, our highly technological civilization is not sustainable. And climate change is just one of the elements that hints that there is something unstable about us.
Do we need to make our lives more basic?
My life is pretty basic. In a way we might be forced into it, not that we can step back into being prehistoric caveman. Nature is going to regulate us.
Your upbringing was very basic, too, and utterly lacking in technology. But you describe it as being the extraordinarily imaginative time in your life.
It was a wonderful childhood, but without telephones, without cinema, without cars, without toys. We had to invent our games, invent our toys, because there were no toys. I made my first phone call when I was 17.
Do you think that was healthier?
It was just different. I'm very grateful that I had a childhood like this, that my visions are different because my background is different.
You and Dieter Dengler, Christian Bale's character in Rescue Dawn, were close?
Yes. We were close almost instantly because we recognized that our backgrounds were quite similar. Both of us grew up in post-war Germany under the hardships, and we were very hungry as children. In Dieter's case, it was so extreme that his mother took him to bombed out houses and ripped down wallpaper and cooked it because there were nutrients in the glue.
What drew you to Dieter and his story?
For me, Dieter is a quintessential American. Of course, he was an immigrant—someone who not only wants to improve his life condition but he came with a big dream, and that big dream was to fly. And America gave him this opportunity. That's why he was so loyal. He has all the ingredients of what I love about Americans: self-reliance, courage, optimism, loyalty.
Could you have survived what Dieter went through?
I have been in very harsh situations, like being imprisoned in Africa for a short period of time. I kept my sanity in a way. And Dieter was very sane, even though he had something to struggle with. He still had demons. When you went to his house he had two tons of rice hidden under the floor in containers, and 1,400 pounds of flour, and 600 pounds of honey.
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