Since his falling out with the major movie studios in his native Germany, Herzog has restricted himself to making documentaries (they're a lot cheaper to produce than dramatic films like Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre), but he brings to them the same passionate commitment and haunting poetic sensibility that informed his famous dramas.
Here the subject is the German-American pilot Dieter Dengler, a man who, as a little boy, fell in love with flight when he made eye contact with the pilot of an Allied plane that was strafing his Bavarian village in WWII. At the age of 18 he moved to America and eventually became a Navy pilot, only to be shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War. Captured by Laotian guerillas and handed over to North Vietnamese soldiers, he endured unbelievable suffering and made a brilliant, heroic escape from a POW camp. Herzog takes Mr. Dengler back to the jungles of Laos to re-enact his ordeals. All this is intercut with scenes from his comfortable home on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, as well as his quaint little hometown in the Black Forest of Germany. Mr. Dengler is a charming, garrulous raconteur who hardly ever interrupts his fascinating, rapid-fire narration. During those rare moments when he is overcome by emotion and falls silent, it is deeply moving for him and for us. He has clearly suffered much in order to fulfill his dreams of flight. His obsession caused him tremendous pain, but it also saved him. It brings him the only real joy in his otherwise tragic life and gives him a reason to live.
Very rarely does a documentary have you on the edge of your seat and move you almost to tears. This one does exactly that. Everyone I have showed this movie to has been moved by it. Once seen, it is never forgotten.
In this film, the good natured subject starts talking at the beginning and never stops -- Herzog has found someone perhaps even more voluble than he is -- and the audience is perfectly set up by his cheerful good naturedness and lucid observations, because by the end of the film we discover just how unimaginably damaged this person has been by life. The unfolding final images of the film are completely striking in the usual Herzogian sense (if you've seen something like "Lessons of Darkness" you'll have some sense of what to expect), but the meaning is ambiguous: is this a kind of heaven for little boys that love to fly? Or is this a hi-tech graveyard ...
Like Herzog's best (e.g. Even Dwarves, Aguirre, Nosferatu, Lessons and My Best Fiend), you simply cannot take your eyes off this movie.