Like the ski flier Walter Steiner in Herzog’s earlier documentary The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974) Dieter Dengler had one overriding dream as a child - this dream was to fly. That this dream would take Dengler from the poverty and hunger struck ruins of post war Bavaria, to the streets of New York, to the US navy, and eventually to sixth months in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp speaks volumes for his will and determination to achieve his life long ambition. The latter episode of course was totally unpredicted, but part of Dengler’s charm is the naïve innocence that led to him joining the navy and eventually piloting an aircraft. In many ways for Dengler the Vietnam War was simpler the enabler of his dream. He had little concept or awareness of the human cost beneath the green canopy of the jungle, but just two hours into his first flight he found himself within that terrain and plunged into a fight for survival. Herzog contextualises this with the inclusion of some inspired stock footage. The images of the jungle landscape exploding in slow motion were recycled for his feature film based on Dengler’s experiences Rescue Dawn (2006) and they possess an odd and haunting poetry. In contrast the footage of jungle survival techniques put out by the military in the 1960’s is laughable and painfully ironic when one thinks of Dengler’s ordeal.
Dengler is an incredible protagonist and perhaps the greatest to ever feature in a Herzog film - both fictional and documentary. He is enigmatic, philosophical and not averse to a poetical turn of phrase - this is perfect for Herzog. Herzog felt particular kinship to Dengler for they are both Bavarians, and both had emigrated to the United States. Both are enslaved to the realm of dreams - Dengler dreams of an airfield full of thousands of planes, and this is where he feels safe. This despite the fact that he never would have suffered as he did without his dream of flying. For once Herzog is able to take a very unobtrusive role in the film, only occasionally does he offer comments as the films narrator. Dengler is such a strong personality that he easily overshadows the film itself and dominates the screen with his non-conformist magnetism. For Dengler the USA allowed him to achieve his dream and perhaps it was a simple case of bad luck that the opportunity came about due to the Vietnam War.
© Shaun Anderson - 2010