Dieter Dengler got out of Laos in 1966, but what happened in the months before he escaped from the hell of being a prisoner of the Vietnam war still haunts the mind of this physically fit and healthy middle-aged man.
Herzog takes Dengler not only back to Laos, but also to Germany, where he was born and where little Dieter learned that he needed to fly. From the windows of his house in Wildberg he saw the airplanes attacking and dropping bombs during World War II and he knew from that very moment what he wanted to do in life. In postwar Germany he learned to build church clocks and was educated as a blacksmith, but his only wish was to cross the Atlantic to become a pilot. At eighteen he left for Bremerhaven, got extremely seasick on the boat to the USA, and after spending a couple of years as a recruit in the army peeling potatoes, learned to fly. And then he was off to Vietnam. His dream was fulfilled: he was a pilot.
In detail Dieter Dengler tells the story of how he was shot down and captured, tortured and brought to a prison camp. He is standing where it all happened, his story re-enacted with Laotians playing the soldiers of that time. In his luxurious house on a mountain near San Francisco, he is unable to shake the demons that have occupied his soul. It helps to be back where he was 30 years ago. Dengler escaped from the prison camp with a friend who later hadó his head chopped off, leaving Dieter alone in the jungle, “dreaming of oceans and foreign shores.” A wild bear creeps around him, seemingó to be his only friend – or maybe the embodiment of death, waiting for the right moment to eat him. Dengler was finally rescued by a helicopter. The man who spotted him on the ground signalling S.O.S. also appears in the film, and the two meet again.
Within the film’s straightforward, dynamic and visually extravagant narrative structure, Herzog keeps coming back to the black and white photograph of Dieter Dengler weighing no more than 85 pounds.
This image of the exhausted rescued figure is contrasted with sequences from the press conference that followed: a handsome young soldier telling his story in front of a lot of microphones. The man is Dieter Dengler, a survivor. These two pictures reflect how close death is to life. And they have an even stronger impact on the viewer than the many archival images from World War II and the Vietnam war which appear in the film as an indication of the pictures inside Dengler’s head.
These images, and Dengler’s almost unstoppable stream of spoken recollections, make it easy to understand what has happened since then in the life of the Vietnam veteran. His house on the mountain, so close to the sky where he loves to be in his airplanes, is full of open doors and paintings of open doors.Never again does he want to feel captured. And yet he only feels free in the cockpit of an airplane.
A lucky man? Herzog does not give us the answer, but he gives us the man, recalling other Herzogian figures who fought God and denied death, as did Aguirre or the people in Fitzcarraldo. It is the individualist and his destiny that Herzog wants to capture – his emotions, his nightmares and dreams, his will to live – because only by being so close to death can one know what it means to be alive. This way of looking at life has its consequences, and nobody would characterise Dengler as a warm and generous person in full harmony. One might say on the contrary, and that is the thrilling element in Herzog’s way of making films: the story is told strongly and in its entirety with no hesitation. It is as if Herzog is saying: I have an adventurous story for you, which I know will fascinate you not for the facts and the historical context, but for its universal approach. You can not escape it.