Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. Germany/United Kingdom/France, 1997. Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, ZDF Enterprises, British Broadcasting Corporation, Arte, Media Ventures, Outpost Studios. Screenplay by Werner Herzog. Cinematography by Peter Zeitlinger. Produced by Lucki Stipetic. Film Editing by Joe Bini, Glen Scantlebury, Rainer Standke.
Werner Herzog investigates the life of Dieter Dengler, shot down over Laos during the Vietnam war and held prisoner for six months before escaping to safety. In the time that he was imprisoned, Dengler tells the camera, he was subjected to some awe-inspiring torture that he miraculously survived, coming back to his adopted American homeland and working as a test pilot in the decades that followed. Herzog eventually adapted Dengler’s story into one of his best feature films, Rescue Dawn, but fans of that movie should also make sure to see the documentary that inspired it, as Christian Bale’s wonderful performance has nothing to do with Dengler as a personality, a choice of artistic licence likely made to suit the needs of that film. Here you experience a plucky optimism and endurance that took the young man from his youth in a bombed-out, post-World War II Germany, through his teen years as an apprentice to a blacksmith before boarding a ship and coming to the United States at the age of eighteen with barely a coin in his pocket. Short in length but deep in emotional effect, Herzog once again focuses on a curious individual but doesn’t try to unearth anything odd or eccentric about him or the things he has endured, instead treating Dengler with a great deal of affection. Herzog is as fascinated by his subject’s enthusiasm for pouring out all the details of his experience as he is sensitive about what are clearly some PTSD triggers that occur when Dengler recreates some of his experiences on camera with extras playing his captors. Current versions of the film feature a post-script that follows the end credits, updating the story with details about the end of Dengler’s life.