Saturday, September 15, 2007
It's hard to imagine a more appropriate subject for a Werner Herzog film than Dieter Dengler. When Dengler was a small child he watched Allied fighters strafe and bomb his village in Germany; he was so fascinated by the the action that he developed a powerful obsession with becoming a pilot. This obsession led, many years later, to his arrival in the US with only pennies on his person, where he joined the Air Force and peeled potatoes for years before earning a college degree and becoming a Navy flyer in Vietnam.
Shot down over Laos, Dengler endured horrid treatment, escaped, and then was subjected to atrocities by the Viet Cong. Herzog narrates occasionally, but lets the more energetic Dengler tell his own story (of course there is a section of monologue scripted by Herzog for his subject to recite--there always is in a Herzog documentary of this sort. It becomes a game to see if you can spot it). Herzog takes Dengler back to the jungle locales where Dengler suffered terribly, and has him bound and marched around again while recounting his tale. Herzog narrates that Dengler later described that time as the happiest of his life.
Herzog loves the obsessed dreamer, the individual driven to extremes. Dengler fits the bill perfectly. How does he maintain his manic glee in life, living as he does with dreadful memories? What drove him to survive his ordeals? Footage of Dengler describing his capture to journalists in the '60s show a smiling and humorous man, surprised and overjoyed to be alive. How does that happen?
Excellent stuff, with Tuvan throatsinging for soundtrack. The NYRB panned Herzog's recent narrative version of Dengler's story, with Christian Bale as Dengler. I'll see it anyhow.