DATE July 25, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Writer-director Werner Herzog on his new film "Rescue
Dawn," based on the true story of Dieter Dengler
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "Rescue Dawn")
Unidentified Actor: (In character) Gentlemen, welcome to North Vietnam.
(Soundbite of explosions)
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's a scene from the beginning of the new film "Rescue Dawn,"
written and directed by my guest Werner Herzog. It's based on the story of
Dieter Dengler, a German-born American pilot who was shot down over Laos in
the early days of the Vietnam War. He was captured by Laotian rebels and
taken to a small prisoner of war camp run by the North Vietnamese, where he
was starved and tortured. Certain that he would die if he stayed, he planned
a very risky but successful escape, only to face more starvation and near
death experiences in the jungle as he tried to make his way to Thailand. He
was eventually rescued by Americans.
Herzog made a documentary about Dieter Dengler in 1997 called "Little Dieter
Needs to Fly." In "Rescue Dawn" Dieter is played by Christian Bale. In this
scene, in the POW camp, Dieter is telling his fellow prisoner Duane about his
plan to escape. Duane is skeptical and insists that if they do try to escape,
they have to wait for the rainy season, or they'll die of thirst. Duane is
played by Steve Zahn.
(Soundbite of "Rescue Dawn")
Mr. STEVE ZAHN: (As Duane) Without water, you won't survive more than two
days out there. And without water, your tracks will be visible for even more.
The jungle is the prison, don't you get it?
Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Dieter Dengler) Hey, when does the rainy season
Mr. ZAHN: (As Duane) Five months, maybe six.
Mr. BALE: (As Dieter Dengler) Well, I can't wait that long.
Mr. ZAHN: (As Duane) Hey, listen, let's say you do survive the jungle and
lack water. There's six guards posted during the day.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BALE: (As Dieter Dengler) Yeah. That is during the day. I'm going at
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Werner Herzog is one of the directors who re-established Germany as a
force in cinema after World War II. Many of his movies have been about
physical and emotional extremes. His films include "Aguirre: The Wrath of
God," "Fitzcarraldo," "Nosferatu," and the recent documentary "Grizzly Man."
Werner Herzog, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. WERNER HERZOG: Thank you.
GROSS: I want to start with a confession. My confession is I love your
movies, but I was reluctant to see "Rescue Dawn" because I didn't want to put
myself through sadistic prisoner of war sequences and then an escape sequence
through the jungle that would hold its own tortures. But I finally decided,
look, it's a Herzog film so you have to see it, and I think it's an excellent
film, but I was wondering, did you experience any of this trepidation when you
set out making it? Did you ever ask yourself, do you want to put yourself
through a long period of time where you're immersing yourself in depicting
torture and depicting this excruciating escape through the jungle?
Mr. HERZOG: Well, it doesn't matter whether I put myself through working on
a subject like that. But it's an interesting question, because when Dieter
Dengler in "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," the original person who went through
all this ordeal and was the only one who escaped North
Vietnamese...(unintelligible)...captivity, he describes it and that's OK, you
can take it, and also when you read it in the screenplay, that's fine. It
reads all right. The moment you do it in practical terms, I immediately had
reservations and I had a big argument with the production company and I said,
`I'm not going to film a couple of these sequences.' Finally I was persuaded,
`yes, do it,' but all these scenes where it's very graphic were all deleted.
GROSS: Can you tell us--give us an example of something you deleted because
Mr. HERZOG: For example...
Mr. HERZOG: When Dieter is refusing to sign a propaganda letter denouncing
the United States, and they hang him upside down and put sharp bamboo sticks
under his fingernails, I filmed it. It didn't look right because I as an
audience do not want to see torture in graphic detail. It doesn't feel right.
I don't want to see, how shall I say it, violence against the defenseless.
And this is the reason why I do not want to see, for example, rape of a woman
on screen. So, it was actually filmed and most of what is going on was left
out. A few things remain in there, but when you are dragged, for example,
behind a water buffalo on sandy ground, that's OK. I think you can tolerate
it, and it's part of Dieter Dengler's story, anyway, so I think the film copes
with it all right.
GROSS: You know, Dieter survives this prisoner of war camp and also survives
the escape through the jungle, but I'm sure there's more than his survival
that interests you about his story. Can you tell us like why you wanted to
film Dieter's story twice, first as a documentary and then as a feature film.
Like, what gets to you in such a strong way about his story?
Mr. HERZOG: I think it is quintessentially--it's not a war movie and it's
not such much a prison escape movie. Of course, at the margin it is, but it
is more the test and trial of men under inhuman conditions, and this real
trial of men was always fascinating for me. And somehow Dieter also embodies
everything I like about America, about Americans: courage and self-reliance
and loyalty and imagination and some sort of frontier spirit. So everything
that I like about your country is somehow embodied in this one man.
GROSS: You know, in the documentary story of Dieter, you say, in a voiceover,
toward the beginning of the film that men are often haunted by things that
happen to them in life, especially in war or other periods of intensity.
Sometimes you see these men walking in the streets or driving in a car. Their
lives seem to be normal, but they are not. And I thought, well, that probably
really interests you too, the sense of somebody who seems to be normal but
Mr. HERZOG: Right, yeah.
GROSS: ...because of what he's been through.
Mr. HERZOG: That's right. And in Dieter's case, you do not expect from a
man who is so charming and so genial, so optimistic that under his floorboards
in the kitchen he's stashed away thousands of pounds of rice and flour and
honey and things for survival. He says, `Of course, logically, I know I'll
never need it, but yet it feels so much better. I can sleep so much better
that I know I don't have to starve ever again.'
GROSS: Now, there are scenes where--there's a scene where Christian
Bale--there's no food--so Christian Bale at one point is eating, it looked
like worms to me but it might have been maggots.
Mr. HERZOG: It's maggots.
Mr. HERZOG: It's maggots, yeah.
GROSS: And then there's another scene in the jungle where Steve Zahn and
Christian Bale have leeches on them. Now, the maggot--it looked like
Christian Bale was eating real maggots and it looked...
Mr. HERZOG: He is.
GROSS: ...like there were genuine leeches on their bodies...
Mr. HERZOG: It was. Yeah.
GROSS: ...in the jungle
Mr. HERZOG: Right.
GROSS: Yeah. Why did it have to be real?
Mr. HERZOG: Because today you have so many things that are fake, digital
effects. You have got PhotoShop in photos. You never believe, you never
trust your own eyes. But when Christian eats maggots it is so obvious, it is
so obvious that you know instinctively as an audience: This is not a joke
anymore. He really eats it. Or for example, when he catches a snake and the
snake tries to strike at him and he nimbly eludes it. And so these things,
leeches on your body, which is not a bad thing, anyway, but it looks bad and
the actors were for it and they accepted it and I think the audiences are put
in a situation, in a position, which is very fundamental. They are weak and
trust our eyes again, and that's what I like about the film.
GROSS: What did you tell the actors when you were casting them about what
they would have to do, what they'd have to endure, in the making of "Rescue
Mr. HERZOG: Well, I told them I would take them where they hadn't been
before in their career. Christian Bale, I asked, half seriously, half
jokingly, `Would you be ready to bite a snake in half?' and he said `yes,' and
that was that. He actually didn't have to bite a snake in half, but he was
prepared for everything. But always knowing that I, as a director, would
automatically offer to demonstrate things that were not dangerous, that they
were OK. When it came to maggot eating, I said to Christian, `Just wait a
moment. I'll take a few spoonfuls,' and he said, `No, no no. Just let me do
it alone. Just turn on the cameras and let's get over with it.' But normally
I would be with them. I would offer to do difficult things to demonstrate,
and they always felt safe.
GROSS: Was there a doctor on the set?
Mr. HERZOG: There was, but we never had any emergencies. I'm a very
professional man, very circumspect when it comes to risk. But, you see,
eating maggots is not risk.
GROSS: It's not? I've never eaten them. I don't...
Mr. HERZOG: No it's not. No.
GROSS: I couldn't say for sure.
Mr. HERZOG: No. They're very--they're actually very rich in protein.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Now your actors also lost a lot of weight. I
Mr. HERZOG: Yeah.
GROSS: They really looked like they had been held as prisoners of war for a
long time. They were emaciated. They were just like...
Mr. HERZOG: Yes.
GROSS: ...skin and bones. And I understand that--you said before that you
had offered to do things along with them. I understand you lost a lot of
weight with them...
Mr. HERZOG: Well...
GROSS: Not quite as much.
Mr. HERZOG: Let's face it. In solidarity, I lost about half the amount of
weight Christian Bale lost.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. And I also understand you shot the scenes in reverse, the
emaciated scenes, the most emaciated scenes...
Mr. HERZOG: Yes. We have to do it...
GROSS: Why do you have to do it that way?
Mr. HERZOG: Because losing weight, you do that very slowly and
professionally and under supervision. It takes about five, let's say, six
months and you lose, I don't know, 50, maybe 60 pounds. And gaining it back
goes pretty fast. You eat a lot, and in three, four weeks you're back at your
normal weight. So what we had to do, we had to shoot the film backwards in
huge chunks. The actors are bearded and they are very thin, very emaciated.
After the first large chunk of shooting, which was end of the movie, he
started to eat, and within three weeks or four weeks he was back to his normal
weight and the very first images in the film is stuff that we shot at the very
end of shooting. So a real, real challenge for an actor to develop a
Mr. HERZOG: A real challenge for continuity, to establish a continuity
backwards. A real challenge for a director to establish a flow of narration
and a rhythm and, of course, a build up of a character as well.
GROSS: During the escape through the jungle sequences, Steve Zahn and
Christian Bale's characters are both completely emaciated, but Steve Zahn more
so because he's been a prisoner of war considerably longer than Christian
Bale's character, and he's so weak at that point he has to constantly lean
against Christian Bale. And there's a couple of scenes within this portion of
the movie in which Steven Zahn's eyes just seem to say pain and death, and I
don't know that I've ever seen eyes look quite like that in a movie, and I'd
really like to hear about...
Mr. HERZOG: Yeah, he looked quite...(unintelligible).
GROSS: ...creating those sequences and just those close-ups of his face.
Mr. HERZOG: Right. You are pointing out at something which can be described
very simple. I had the privilege to work with the best of their generation,
and Steve Zahn is such an extraordinary actor of such great abilities. The
wonderful thing was that it was not a Hollywood film I made. It was made
outside all of these systems. I think a Hollywood studio would never have
agreed to cast Steve Zahn, who is more known to the general audiences as the
funny sidekick in...
Mr. HERZOG: ...Eddie Murphy movies.
Mr. HERZOG: But some early films of Steve Zahn point into a direction where
I really went very, very deep. And so I think it's a huge, huge achievement
of a phenomenal talent.
GROSS: My guest is film director Werner Herzog. We'll talk more about making
"Rescue Dawn" after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Werner Herzog, and we're talking about making his new
movie "Rescue Dawn," which is about an American pilot, a German-born American
pilot who's shot down early in the war in Vietnam and is taken prisoner of war
and eventually escapes through the jungle.
In an early scene in the movie, we see overhead footage, of footage shot from
an airplane of bombs being dropped on what I assume is Vietnam, and we see,
you know, we see the explosions and huts starting to burn as they catch fire
from the explosions, and it's all shown in slow motion. Now, this same
footage is in both "Little Dieter Learns to Fly," your documentary about
Dieter Dengler, and in "Rescue Dawn," your feature film about Dieter Dengler.
Where did you find this footage...
Mr. HERZOG: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and how did you choose it, and also why did you want to use it in
Mr. HERZOG: I think it is not in slow motion. It appears as if it were slow
motion, but it was...
Mr. HERZOG: ...footage recently released by, or something like 10, 15 years,
released, and it's available in the National Archive in Washington, and it was
footage which was used for bomb damage assessment. And you see it has this
horrifying beauty about it, and the music that is playing there composed by
Klaus Badelt, who did it very wonderfully, it's an almost serene, almost
idyllic music accompanying it. It's a little bit like Kubrick's atomic
explosions at the end of "Dr. Strangelove." But of course, with that footage,
basically, war footage, and it's the first minute in the film--and because in
a way it is correct, in a way it's misleading or inventive, because the war
lasted exactly 40 minutes for Dieter Dengler. In his first mission he was
shot down, so of course the film emphasizes other things that are not directly
Dieter Dengler's story. This kind of bombing raid was never anything Dieter
Dengler did. And of course we had to reinvent or modify his character
according to Christian Bale. We were not slavishly following exactly all the
idiosyncrasies of Dieter Dengler.
GROSS: You've made several movies set in the jungle. "Aguirre" and
"Fitzcarraldo" were set in the Amazon jungle. The documentary about Dieter
has jungle sequences in it and, of course, the new film "Rescue Dawn" is set
in the jungle. What characteristics of the jungle did you most want to
capture in "Rescue Dawn?" Because like the jungle is another character in the
movie. The jungle is alive.
Mr. HERZOG: Right. Yeah. Yes. It's never a backdrop for a story like--for
example, commercials would find the most scenic backdrop. But for me a
landscape is always a living character in the movie, and it has somehow
qualities that normally define a human being. It's like the fever dreams in
us and how to depict that. I, of course, shoot the jungle in a very specific
way. And landscapes have always been very, very important, and of course I've
done four, five, six films in the jungle, but I've made almost 60 movies so
far, and my last film, which I finished just yesterday, is a film I shot in
Mr. HERZOG: ...and of course there, it's an incredible vastness of landscape
and a solitude beyond description, and just as if Antarctica was one of the
leading characters in the film.
GROSS: No one would accuse you of not being interested in extremes.
Mr. HERZOG: No, Antarctica isn't that extreme. Actually, today it's quite
easy, or fairly easy. We are always thinking back to the days of Shackleton
and Scott and Amundsen. Of course every step was a big toil and it was a
dangerous thing. Today Antarctica is easy.
GROSS: In one of the scenes when they're in the prisoner of war camp, Dieter
really wants to escape, and one of the characters who's very skeptical about
trying to escape says to him, `The jungle's the prison. Don't you get it?'
Mr. HERZOG: Yes.
GROSS: When you were filming in the jungle, was the jungle ever prison-like
for you? Could you do the things you needed to do as a filmmaker and as a
Mr. HERZOG: That's a difficult question. Yes, sometimes when you are caught
in the middle of shooting, next town is 1,400 kilometers away, I mean, a place
where you could buy a battery for a torch light, make a phone call, and you
have got a small town built for 1100 native Indian extras, and the rivers
become unnavigable because you have got islands of trees floating by. Every
20 feet or so, another tree is floating by so you can't use a boat, and all of
a sudden you are a prisoner in the jungle and you've got 1,100 disgruntled men
and women with you who haven't seen a chicken for dinner for a week or so. So
then it becomes rough, and you have to pull a ship over a mountain, and it
doesn't move. But at the same time, I like the jungle. I love it.
Sometimes--and I say that I love it against my better judgment--but we should
not forget that a jungle is just another forest and it has great beauty. It
has great mystery. It's just got everything.
GROSS: Werner Herzog will be back in the second half of the show. His new
film is called "Rescue Dawn."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with filmmaker Werner Herzog.
His new film "Rescue Dawn" is based on the story of Dieter Dengler, a
German-born American pilot who was shot down over Laos in the early days of
the Vietnam War. His ambition wasn't to fight in war, he just wanted to fly,
and joining the Army was the easiest way for him to do that. While Herzog was
trying to raise the money he needed to make "Rescue Dawn," he made a
documentary called "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." Here's a scene from the 1997
documentary in which Dieter Dengler is in Bavaria in the neighborhood where he
grew up. He's reminiscing about his childhood during World War II.
(Soundbite of "Little Dieter Needs to Fly")
Mr. DIETER DENGLER: The first airplane--the first airplanes that I ever saw
in my life, they came right over here. They were fighters. They dove down to
the small town. They made senseless attacks on small villages like this.
(Soundbite of explosions)
Mr. DENGLER: And behind me, up there, that's kind of how it looked. I had
two brothers then. We were at the top window and we looked out and we watched
all this, and I clearly remember one of the airplanes came diving at our
house, and it was so unusual because the cockpit was open. The pilot had
black goggles that were sitting on his forehead. He was looking--he had
actually turned around. He was looking in the window and the machine guns
were just firing because the flashes, I keep seeing them coming out. And the
left wing tip just missed the house by two or three feet as he clipped by. It
was just a fraction of a second. It was like a vision for me It was like an
almighty being that came out. It was just something else that's just very
difficult to describe, but I knew from that moment on that I wanted to be a
pilot. I wanted to be a flier. From that moment on, little Dieter needed to
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Here's the same story, as told by Christian Bale, who plays Dieter
Dengler in Werner Herzog's new film "Rescue Dawn." Dieter is talking with his
fellow prisoners in the North Vietnamese POW camp, and one of them asks him a
(Soundbite of "Rescue Dawn")
Unidentified Actor: (As a prisoner of war) How'd you ever end up a pilot?
Mr. BALE: (As Dieter Dengler) I was with my brother. We were looking out,
and we see this fighter plane, beautiful, coming right at us. And it's firing
from its wings, and I see the machine gun, it's flashing. And whoosh! It
goes flying past the house. He's looking right at me, and as he turns to go,
he's turning back, he's looking right at me still. And the thing is, from
that moment on, little Dieter, he needed to fly.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Dieter Dengler died in 2001 before "Rescue Dawn" was made. Let's get
back to our interview with Werner Herzog about shooting "Rescue Dawn" in the
Let me just ask you about one other really visually striking and very kind of
creepy image, surreal image in the movie, and this is from early on. Like,
you know, Dieter's been taken hostage. He's taken prisoner of war and he's
tied down. This is before he arrives at the final POW camp. He's tied down
and, at his head, is a little child with a very large bug on a string, and the
child is kind of, you know, bouncing this bug on a string in front of
Christian Bale's face, and by his feet sits an adult with this really large
butterfly, and it's such a surreal image. Does that come from something that
Dieter had described to you, or is that an image like...
Mr. HERZOG: No.
GROSS: ...that you thought of?
Mr. HERZOG: No. Neither did Dieter describe it nor did I think about it.
But when I started working in this village of hill tribe people, Karen people,
I all of a sudden ran into some children who had these gigantic rhino beetles
on a string, and they'd buzz around and they'd sound like a wooden helicopter,
and I liked it so much that I introduced it into the film. And Christian
Bale, Dieter, who is tied to the ground spread-eagle, is woken up by this
strange sound of the wooden helicopter, and it turns out it's the strangest of
rhino beetles whirring around on the string. And then, by coincidence that
same day, I find a huge butterfly, some sort of a night butterfly, gigantic--I
mean, larger, much larger than two palms of hands, and I gave it to this
prison guard and I said to him, `Be very gentle with the butterfly so it won't
escape,' and we filmed it. It's just fascinations of things that I stumble
GROSS: Now, during the making of one of your early documentaries, "Fata
Morgana," you were apparently taken prisoner in Cameroon, where you were
shooting? Apparently one of your cameramen had the same name as a fugitive
soldier of fortune, and they thought you were both mercenaries. Do I have the
Mr. HERZOG: We can only guess, but it was probably that we were mistaken for
mercenaries, and the name was quite too close. So yes. That happens. We
were just taken prisoner, but it wasn't that bad. I mean, it was fairly bad
but could have been much worse. The real bad side of the story is that both
the cinematographer and I had malaria and another much more serious tropical
disease. So we were quite weakened, and that's OK. You go through things
GROSS: Did being held prisoner and being sick while you were a prisoner make
you any more interested in shooting a movie like "Rescue Dawn" about being
held prisoner in the jungle?
Mr. HERZOG: Not necessarily, but I do understand the situation fairly well.
So, yes, of course. And of course it's other things as well. As a child,
like little Dieter, or Dieter Dengler, we were both very hungry. We grew up
in a time--in Dieter's case, much worse. His mother took the boys out into
bombed-out villages and they would rip wallpaper from walls, and the mother
would cook it because there were nutrients in the glue. So you can imagine
how hungry the children were at that time.
It wasn't that bad for me, but I do understand a situation like that. I do
understand a situation of what it means to be imprisoned. I was actually
never really imprisoned for a long time. I was held captive and then released
and then recaptured, so it was kind of unpleasant but it was still manageable.
GROSS: You're very willing to enter the territory of pathology and pain in
your movies, but I'm wondering if there's ever a time when you just experience
like the pure terror of the nightmarish kind of sequences that you sometimes
Mr. HERZOG: Well, I'm--so to speak--clinically sane and I have my natural
defenses of not being terrorized. But when you speak about pain and
pathology, I would be careful to accept it because I'm much more, in general,
into the human condition. I want to look, of course, into the abysses of the
human soul. but I'm also looking into the joys and exhilarations of the human
heart. And so I'm not into anything masochistic or into pain and all that.
It occurs sometimes in movies where human beings are under great stress and
under unusual conditions, sometimes even inhuman conditions, but it's always
with looking at us as human beings with all the grandiose sights that we have
as well. Great projects in our imagination, great exhilaration, great,
wonderful things that we are out to explore.
GROSS: That often end up in pain and extremes.
Mr. HERZOG: Well...
GROSS: I know you keep denying it, but...
My guest is Werner Herzog. His new film is "Rescue Dawn." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Werner Herzog, and we've been talking about his new movie
I would like to ask you a question or two about an earlier documentary you
made that was released about two years ago called "Grizzly Man," which is an
extraordinary film about somebody who saw himself as a naturalist who was
going to save the grizzly bear, but really he wasn't; he was more intruding on
their territory than helping them. And your movie is made in part from the
films he made of himself while he was in the wild with the grizzly bears, and
it's an amazing film. And you'll think that this is crazy so--I'll say it
anyways, but it kind of reminded me of like an in-the-wild version of "Taxi
Driver," in the sense that it's about somebody who looks around him and thinks
that everybody--he's totally alienated from people.
Mr. HERZOG: Yeah.
GROSS: He thinks everybody's crazy and he's the sane one...
Mr. HERZOG: Terry...
GROSS: ...and he's not.
Mr. HERZOG: ...I think you shouldn't watch that many movies. But anyway,
yes. No, it's an extraordinary film because Timothy Treadwell and his footage
are so extraordinary. It is actually--I keep saying if you want to look as
deep as it gets into the abyss of the human soul, just watch "Grizzly Man."
Watch Treadwell, because it's not only his moments where he's misled and
misguided and has this kind of vanilla ice cream New Age pseudo-philosophy, he
also made a lot of sense. He also had moments of dejection and despair and
exhilarated moments. A very, very complicated, multifaceted human being, and
looking at him and working with his footage was just a very, very rewarding
thing. So we can thank God on our knees that Treadwell did all this footage.
And I think it was also a blessing that the two of us found each other, in a
way, even though Treadwell was already 10 months dead. He was eaten by one of
the bears together with his girlfriend and died very tragically, and it was a
good thing that, in a way, that we found each other. And those who know both
Treadwell and me keep maintaining we would have liked each other even though
we were so different.
GROSS: There's a scene in the movie--and this is a very kind of famous scene
from the film--in which you listen back to a tape that was recording as
Treadwell and his girlfriend were eaten alive by a bear, and we don't hear it.
We the audience doesn't here it, but you've heard it. And I guess I've
wondered about what impact that had on you as a film director because, you
know, you've directed fiction films as well as documentaries...
Mr. HERZOG: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...so you've directed people in death scenes and in the kinds of
scenes that you can only imagine...
Mr. HERZOG: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: But you heard what it was like, the real thing, of what it was like to
be eaten alive by a bear, and...
Mr. HERZOG: It was the most terrifying I've ever heard in my life. But in a
way I had to address it because production company and network that
broadcasted discovery and Lion's Gate Movie, the theatrical distributor, asked
me to address this tape. Because it was known in public, it was known in
articles, and other reports that there was a tape in existence. So I said,
`I'm going to address it, fine, but I have to hear it, and then I will make a
decision.' And the moment I heard it--and it's not me so interesting to hear
it--it's more the face of Jewel Palovak, the woman who founded Grizzly People
together with Treadwell, knew him for 20 years, lived with him for some of
that time, trying to read from my face what I am hearing and how I am
reacting. And it's a very, very intense moment. And the moment I heard it I
knew only over my dead body this is going to be published in the film that I
do, and it's a similar thing like in "Rescue Dawn." There are scenes of
torture that are not in the film, period. Only over my dead body they would
be in it.
GROSS: But getting back to actually having heard the tape, did that have an
impact on you as a film director in terms of what you think death sounds like
and what you want to hear when you're directing a death scene?
Mr. HERZOG: No. When you hear a tape like this, you are not a film director
anymore, and you are not a German or an American or a Japanese or anyone
anymore. You are just a stark naked human being that is confronted with the
most terrifying a human being can be confronted. Nobody deserves to die like
him. No one. No matter whether he made mistakes or not. And you are not a
film director anymore when you hear a thing like that.
GROSS: OK. Well, that's just the thing. A lot of people are afraid to
expose themselves to certain images or certain sounds because they're afraid
that they'll never be able to turn it off. That that sound, that image is
going to come back to haunt them, and what about you? Were you able to hear
the most horrible thing and then...
Mr. HERZOG: Yes, sure, but...
GROSS: ...put it aside, you know, then forget?
Mr. HERZOG: You do not--no, you can't put it aside. But you have to deal
with it, and you have to have a healthy response to it and live unhealthily
anyway. But it's--in a way, it is an attitude that I've always had. My
friends are wondering why did I watch Anna Nicole Smith's show. Why do I
watch Wrestlemania? My answer is...
Mr. HERZOG: No, seriously, I do that. My answer is the poet must not avert
his eyes from what's going on in the world. In order to understand what's
going on, you have to face it.
GROSS: Now, you said a poet should never avert his eyes. But the last time
we spoke on FRESH AIR, you told me one thing you'd never looked at was your
own eyes, that you didn't know the color of your eyes because when you look in
Mr. HERZOG: Which is still true.
GROSS: ...you don't really want to study your face. However, you are now
acting in a couple of films and you were saying to me before the interview...
Mr. HERZOG: It's something different...
GROSS: So--but you've seen your face on a big screen now? Right?
Mr. HERZOG: Yes, I have.
GROSS: Well, and you must have seen yourself in documentaries that you were
Mr. HERZOG: My voice and sometimes I appear. Yeah, well, when I say I don't
like to look into my own eyes, it's this kind of aversion against psychology
and against shrinks and illuminating every last...(unintelligible)...
GROSS: Right. Too much introspection. Yeah.
Mr. HERZOG: Yeah. I don't like that but of course, not only do I release
"Rescue Dawn" right now, and I have a new film which I made in Antarctica, I
have two more films for release right now where I'm, as I call it, a paid
stooge. Actually I'm acting.
No, I love everything that has to do with the cinema--acting, directing,
writing, editing, production of movies, everything. So I love to act in
movies and I'm not bad at all, if it comes to dysfunctional, vile and base and
terrifying characters. I'm good at that. Even though, as a private
person--and my wife will certainly confirm that---I'm a fluffy man. But in
some of the films,like Harmony Korine's "Mister Lonely," I'm playing a
fanatical missionary priest; and in Zak Penn's "The Grand," which is about a
poker tournament, I'm playing the German who keeps strangling rabbits just to
feel--in order to feel alive. So I'm not a very pleasant character onscreen
but I'm good at that.
GROSS: One last question. You know that--I think it was a Baudelaire--I
can't remember who--it was Flaubert maybe? Maybe Flaubert, who said, and I'm
going to paraphrase this in a way that will probably kill the quote...
Mr. HERZOG: Yeah.
GROSS: ...but it was something like, `One should live one's life with a lot
of moderation and save the extremes for the art.' I've killed the quote, but
that's basically what it says. Do you agree with that?
Mr. HERZOG: No, because there is no distinction between life and art work.
I am just slaloming wildly through life and through films and I may leave a
few fleeting traces in the sand that will be wiped out very soon, so now it's
all--I take it all and I spend it all and I invest it all and I'm just doing
it the way I feel right. I feel that's how my life is taking place.
GROSS: Werner Herzog, it's great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
Mr. HERZOG: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Werner Herzog wrote and directed the new film "Rescue Dawn."
Coming up, our book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews a debut novel she thinks
is terrific by the Korean-American writer Min Jin Lee. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: "Free Food for Millionaires," a debut novel from Min Jin
TERRY GROSS, host:
Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that reading Min Jin Lee's new novel "Free
Food for Millionaires" is almost as much fun as eating a handful of Bertie
Bott's Every Flavor Beans with a bunch of strangers at midnight.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
It's been a good summer for those of us who worry about the future of books.
Last Friday night I waited for hours at our local independent bookstore for
cartons containing the last "Harry Potter" novel to be ripped open at
midnight. My daughter and two of her friends, all nine years old, were in
costume as Fluffy, the three-headed dog from the first Potter book. They had
cut three head-holes into a big cardboard box and were sweating in this getup
amidst a hoard of kids and adults dressed as witches, magic mirrors, muggles,
and of course, Harry himself.
Sure, I've read the arguments that Potter-mania is just well-orchestrated
publicity, that the series isn't as good literarily speaking as, say, "The
Iliad" or "Beowulf," and that Rowling's books can't single-handedly lure kids
away from the dark forces of video games. But at the stroke of midnight,
those objections vanished. The crowd surged forward, whooping, customers
clutched their fresh copies of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," and the
line moved out of the store into the parking lot, where magic was happening.
Amidst the hullabaloo, kids were standing still in that lighted parking lot
after midnight, lost in reading the first chapter. I'm going to treasure that
vision of the parking lot as a talisman against despair over the fate of books
And then, another cheering development, I read a terrific debut novel this
week. It's always heartening to find a good new writer, but what's especially
delightful about Min Jin Lee and her new novel, called "Free Food for
Millionaires," is that she's taken up the expansive form of the 19th-century
novel and its concerns about money, marriage and duty to create a kind of
Korean-American riff on all those sagas--"Pride and Prejudice," "Jane Eyre,"
"Middlemarch"--where the principled heroine sometimes behaves like a downright
Lee's heroine, Casey Han, has just graduated from Princeton and, as the
daughter of Korean immigrants who operate a dry cleaning shop, she's mired in
student loan debt. In the opening pages, Casey and her father get into an
argument. He hits her and banishes her from their cramped apartment in
Queens. When she flees to her boyfriend's apartment in Manhattan, she
discovers him romping on the floor of his bedroom with two sorority girls he's
just picked up at a bar. How would George Eliot's Dorthea Brooke handle this
situation? Casey copes by hailing a cab to the ritzy Carlisle Hotel and
maxing out her brand-new credit card.
A smart insight that Lee elaborates throughout "Free Food for Millionaires" is
that, whereas in most Victorian novels, where a character who climbs up the
class ladder will hang on for dear life to whatever rung he or she has
attained, 21st-century Americans can sometimes sample disparate class
experiences in the course of a single day. A first-generation striver like
Casey, who eventually lands a low-level job on Wall Street, can start the
morning by scrambling to find carfare for the subway and end the evening by
eating a business dinner at a chic restaurant where coffee costs $10 a cup.
Such class tourism, however, carries a psychic cost. Casey sometimes feels as
if other people around her were `members of some improved world, where every
pot had a lid.'
Of course, the compact geography of Manhattan encourages such excursions into
other worlds, and "Free Food for Millionaires." is reminiscent of another
ambitious New York novel about class collision, Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the
Vanities." Unlike Wolfe's cynical, omniscient narrator, however, Lee's
narrator seems generously amused by her character's flaws. The pleasure of
reading this sprawling novel derives from the old-fashioned thrill of watching
the wheel of fortune slowly turn for various characters. The virginal bride
contracts herpes, the good catch turns out to have a gambling problem, the
self-satisfied Korean-American prig loses all for a tumble in bed with a hot
In the Victorian-inflected saga of Casey Han and her friends, Lee has given
readers more than just Elizabeth Bennet tricked out in a Korean hanbok. She's
tweaked venerable 19th-century fictional forms to suit the story of yet
another new immigrant group claiming New York City as its own. Like J.K.
Rowling, Lee evokes the stories of centuries past to imagine a space where the
individual consciousness of a single reader can still merge with the
sensibilities of a single writer's humble artifact, the novel.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Free Food for Millionaires" by Min Jin Lee.
You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.