film reporter

Director always has a ball with confusion

Most directors strive for control. Werner Herzog thrives on chaos.

Throughout his legendary career, the Munich, Germany-born helmer has delved into the most hostile terrain accompanied by volatile personalities like longtime collaborator Klaus Kinski to realize his uniquely ambitious cinematic visions.

With such classics as 1972's "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" to "Fitzcarraldo" a decade later to the more recent documentary "Grizzly Man," Herzog has demonstrated a thirst for madness.

His latest film — MGM's "Rescue Dawn," which opens July 4 — marks the director's first foray into a more conventional commercial genre. Nevertheless, Herzog continued to embrace the unpredictability that has defined his 45-year filmography.

"He's about accepting accidents, really, which can often be the most interesting moments in a film," says Christian Bale, who stars in the true-life story of Dieter Dengler, who beat incredible odds by breaking out of a Laotian POW camp during the Vietnam War and surviving a jungle trek to freedom. "The possibility of some kind of chaos is always more interesting than order."

Despite the systematic disorder, the film's cast kept complete faith in their captain during the three-month shoot in the unfriendly Thai jungle.

"He's very comfortable with chaos," says the film's Jeremy Davies, who plays a fellow American POW. "He has the capacity to remove himself, detach himself from any fear. To be a great filmmaker, you need that because so many things can derail a film."

With Dengler, the director found a kindred spirit — a man unafraid to look into the void. In fact, before filming the narrative "Rescue Dawn," Herzog helmed a documentary about Dengler titled "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." Although Dengler died six years ago, Herzog says that the German-born U.S. Air Force pilot continues to be a guiding figure.

"In a complicated situation, I ask myself, 'What would Dieter do in this situation?' " says Herzog, who says fear doesn't appear in his vocabulary anymore.

Steve Zahn, who played the third American POW in the camp, found the experience of working with Herzog to be exhilarating and even entertaining.

"He loves chaos; that's how he works," Zahn says. "He would set things up so that people would get crazy, start a rumor. Werner would send an e-mail and say, 'The film is falling apart tomorrow.' The script supervisor would be going out of her mind. He pays no attention to continuity whatsoever. But it really kept you on your toes."

Bale likens Herzog's directing style to running a marathon every day. "He wants to feel the effort, feel the challenge of it and know that other people are on board in challenging themselves."