"Men are often haunted by things that happen to them in life, especially in war or other periods of great intensity. Sometimes you see these men walking in the streets or driving in a car; their lives seem to be normal, but they are not..."
With these words, Werner Herzog begins the tale of Dieter Dengler - it's one of the most affecting stories I've ever heard.
Dieter Dengler is a man profoundly changed by his experiences, but one who is full of enthusiastic energy: the first thing we notice is that, even though he came to America aged 18 at least 35 or 40 years before this film was made, his accent remains a resolutely German one; events in his life have doubtless had a huge effect on his life, but his voice still remains true to his motherland.
Externally then, he shows little change, but most people would have been crushed by what he went through. Bavarian-tinged words tumble from him in a happy rush - there is an agile, sharp mind navigating his sentences, but always - even when relating horrific episodes of his quite frankly, humbling story - there is this boyishly vigorous joy in being able to relate his tale. And what a tale it is:
After seeing a Spitfire swoop withing a car's length of his family house in Germany during the Second World War, Dieter was determined to become a pilot. We follow the story as he tells us how he arrived penniless in America, like so many before him, eventually becaame a pilot for the US Air Force, and found himself fighting in Vietnam. He was shot down, captured, finally escaped, and then rescued.
That's the heavily-abridged version. He revisits the jungle scenes and relives the moments, even marching with armed Vietnamese for authenticity. He maintains this incredible positive talkative energy - at one point saying it was all a bit too close to the bone, but trauma is never his master - keeps the viewer enthralled. Never does Werner have to prompt him - he is an interviewer's dream. We empathise with him completely as he tells of the terrible experiences he had. When he is finally greeted by all his old friends after surviving months on the run in the jungle, it is intensely emotional for us to watch. Here is an incredibly strong, brave - and above all, generous man: generous in the way he gives himself to us as he talks.
Many times he should by rights have died. But death, it seems, didn't want him. I grew to love this man by the time this film had finished.
Humbling. One of Herzog's truly great films.