Action man at home in the jungle

Director Werner Herzog has remained true to his own compellingly eccentric vision, as his new film about Vietnam shows

Director Werner Herzog has remained true to his own compellingly eccentric vision, as his new film about Vietnam shows. Donald Clarkehears how he manages it

Who among the phalanx of great film directors that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s is still among us? Many, of course, continue to breathe, but few have survived undiminished. Francis Ford Coppola makes better wine than he makes films. Nicolas Roeg's recent work is now eccentric in a bad way. The less said about Wim Wenders the soonest mended.

Then there is the enigmatic pessimist who goes by the name of Werner Herzog. At a time when too many youths were embracing the hollow nirvanas of the hippie movement, Herzog - who, being born in Germany during the last war, knew a thing or two about misery - managed to make nihilism unusually intoxicating in such singular pictures as Aguirre: The Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Fitzcarraldo.

Over the last few decades he has, however, mostly concerned himself with the production of documentaries. These films are, it is true, fabulous entities. Grizzly Man, Wheel of Time and Little Dieter Needs to Fly (all featured in an excellent, continuing retrospective at the Irish Film Institute) carry about them the same bewitching oddness that characterised Herzog's earlier features. But, until recently, the director's fans, disappointed by the dull dud that was 2001's Invincible, were beginning to fear that he may never rediscover his touch for deranged drama.

All hail Rescue Dawn. Revisiting the story of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, this cracking film stars Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler, a German pilot who joined the US Navy at the time of the Vietnam War, was shot down over Laos and, after undergoing many classically Herzogian indignities, managed to escape from a brutal prisoner-of-war camp. The synopsis reads like Die Hard in the jungle. But Herzog makes something compellingly eccentric out of the material. So, what, exactly, does distinguish the film from the average mainstream action picture?

"I don't know," Herzog says without apparent irony. "It probably has something to do with the fact that audiences can no longer trust their eyes while watching action pictures. Even children now recognise digital effects in films. Audiences tell me they can trust their eyes when watching this film. Maybe that is the difference."

It is a pleasure to relate that Herzog remains as charmingly perverse as ever. The trademark moustache has gone, but the stubborn desire to frustrate bourgeois expectations - so apparent in Burden of Dreams, Les Blank's documentary on the chaotic production of Fitzcarraldo - still announces itself at every available turn.

Consider his response when I observe casually that Rescue Dawn must have been a logistical nightmare to shoot.

"Oh no. It was an easy film to make."

But he filmed in the jungles of Thailand with a modest crew. That sounds fairly troublesome.

"Look, jungle is just another word for a forest. People have this fantasy of the jungle as this snake-infested place with jaguars waiting to eat you. This is a childish perception. It is only another forest. That is true whether you are in Bavaria or Thailand or the Amazon. It was an easy film to make."

Whatever about the alleged ease of production, the film has certainly attracted flak in the run-up to its release. The family of one Gene DeBruin, who was imprisoned with Dengler and has remained missing ever since, has taken great offence at Herzog's presentation of their relative as a babbling nutcase with Charles Manson's eyes and hair.

"I see their views as absolutely legitimate," he says. "Their brother disappeared 40 years ago and they claim - I am sure they are right - that he was a sweet, warm-hearted family man. But this is the story told by Dieter Dengler and this is how he remembered it. I know that if you were able to tell the story as Gene DeBruin would tell it, it would be very different. Dieter did say that there was great solidarity between them, but that at times they wanted to strangle one another."

WE SHOULD NOT be surprised that Herzog relishes the condition of the unreliable narrator. He has, after all, always enjoyed teasing interviewers by repeating and inflating various myths about his own early life. He was, it seems, born in Munich on September 5th 1942 and - we can be fairly sure - moved with his family to the Bavarian countryside after a bomb destroyed a neighbouring house. The legend further states that Herzog, whose father deserted the family after returning from a prisoner-of-war camp, lived a life of sylvan bliss in the southern mountains. He never saw a film as a child and didn't make a phone call until he was 17.

"That is all true," he says. "I really had a wonderful childhood. We all had incredible freedom. There were no fathers around dictating what to do and how to behave. We had no toys. We built our own toys and invented our own games. As I had never seen cinema as a child, I didn't know it existed. In a way, I felt as if I were the inventor of cinema. Even today I work as if I am the only film-maker on the planet."

That belief that he is inventing cinema from scratch affects both the content of Herzog's films and his approach to the nuts and bolts of the business. From an early age he financed his own films by working in fields and factories. After studying at the University of Munich, he won a scholarship to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, but he dropped out after a few days and made his way to Mexico to shoot more film. Early pictures, such as 1968's Signs of Life, attracted little attention, but with the release of Even Dwarfs Started Small in 1970, Herzog began to gather a significant cult following. That bizarre movie, in which a band of little people rebel against the supervisors of their institution, found the characteristic Herzog pessimism already in place. Its most explicit expression came, however, 35 years later in his terrific documentary, Grizzly Man. After allowing the film's subject - an incompetent survivalist named Timothy Treadwell, later to be eaten by bears - to witter on airily about birds and clouds, Herzog eventually finds himself unable to resist offering his own philosophy. "I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder," he says.

Treadwell's approach is certainly absurd, but there is, surely, some middle ground between total naivety and utter nihilism.

"That is not naivety," he says. "It is much worse than that. That New Age philosophy is vile and debased. It is disgusting. When I hear that stuff I lower my head and I charge."

Herzog's dry, cynical attitude towards the compromises and hypocrisies of the post-war world was shared by the other great German directors who arrived in the early 1970s. The films of Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff, Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder now seem to define a golden era in their nation's cinema.

"I wouldn't call it a golden era," he says. "But there was something in the air. This was the first generation growing up after the second World War and there was no continuity with German cinema before the war. We came out of nowhere. We had no father figures. It is dangerous to say that it was a golden era because you have to remember that the films were derided at the time by the press. The critics said that Aguirre was the worst film of the decade. It was refused by the Cannes Film Festival."

Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Herzog's magnificent 1972 study of a deranged conquistador's search for El Dorado, eventually came to be seen as one the great films of its decade. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1975 and Herzog found himself installed as one the viscounts of European cinema. He quickly developed a reputation for all-round eccentricity and, more particularly, for attempting the impossible in the most inhospitable of circumstances. Other directors, if directing a film in which a lunatic hauls a ship over a mountain, would accept the financiers' advice and use a model. But, when directing Fitzcarraldo, Werner actually hauled a ship over a mountain. Klaus Kinski, the eccentric star of that film and of Aguirre, maintained that his old sparring partner was indulging in creative masochism.

"He creates the most senseless difficulties and dangers, risking other peoples safety and even their lives - just so he can actually say that he, Herzog, has beaten seemingly unbeatable odds," Kinski wrote.

"That is not true at all," Herzog says with a smile. "I go out of my way to make things easy and to be professional. Here is the proof: nobody has ever been seriously injured on one of my films."

So was Kinski just lying? "Yes. Oh he just used to go completely ballistic and heap invective over me. But I even helped him with the vocabulary for those insults. I bought him the best dictionary and showed him how to use a thesaurus."

Kinski had an apparently inexhaustible passion for flinging insults at Herzog. Yet the two men, who first met when teenagers, seem to have remained pals until the actor's death in 1991. Herzog's My Best Fiend, a fabulous documentary on the relationship, stands as a touching elegy to a unique, if terrifying, talent.

"Of course we had confrontations," he says. "And in a way he was a complete wimp. He would show off his jungle outfit, his camouflage overalls that Yves Saint Laurent had tailored for him. Then if he had to wade through mud, he would immediately wail and holler and shout."

But Herzog did love the man?

"Yes. But, at the same time, I was ambivalent. He was the perfect skunk. He was the worst pestilence on God's earth. But he did have the odd charming moment. They were very rare, but they did happen."

HERZOG, A SURPRISINGLY sober man, with a restful, soothing voice, seems to have happened upon a degree of domestic stability over the last decade. After embarking on two unsuccessful marriages and siring three children, he attached himself to Lena Pisetski, a photographer, in 1999. The couple now live a short distance from Laurel Canyon, a disconcertingly rustic locale in the Hollywood Hills.

Hang on a moment. What on earth is Werner Herzog, the paragon of European cinematic cynicism, doing hanging out with the Plastic Fantastic?

"I like it a lot, because I wanted to stay in the United States," he explains. "I married an American and wanted to stay with my wife, but we decided to leave San Francisco. It is too chic and too leisurely. We decided we must move to the place with the most substance."

Is he playing the contrarian again? Los Angeles is a fabulous city in many ways, but few people think of it as having more "substance" than New York or, well, San Francisco.

"That is an easy thing to say, but it is silly and inconsiderate," Herzog says. "If you look at Hollywood, you are right. But you go to New York if you are interested in commerce. You come here if you are interested in culture."

Or if you are interested in becoming a target for recreational marksmen. Last year, a new chapter was added to the Herzog legend when the director was shot in the abdomen by an air rifle while being interviewed by Mark Kermode for the BBC. Astonishingly, he continued talking calmly as if the tiniest flea had gently nibbled his bellybutton. "That was nothing. It was just an arabesque, just something that happens," he says.

Oh come on, Werner! Who else but Herzog would continue the interview with blood seeping into his underwear? Why didn't he stop filming to, at least, slap on a plaster? "A sense of professionalism, I suppose. I had to finish the interview."

Herzog really is a delightfully infuriating man. After chatting to him for 40 minutes, I am still unsure if his apparent ingenuousness is authentic or if he is consciously contributing to the elaboration of his own myth. Let's try one more time.

What would have stopped him recording the interview? The severing of a limb? A hatchet in the kneecap? "I don't know. I can't answer that. No, let's not get into this. There are too many clinically insane people after me already. I don't want any more."

What a splendid answer. Few men have remained themselves for longer than Werner Herzog has remained Werner Herzog.

The Werner Herzog retrospective continues at the Irish Film Institute, Dublin until tomorrow. Rescue Dawn is on limited release