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Dieter Dengler’s story is awe-inspiring. Though we’re prone to exaggerate, the phrase is absolutely bang on in this case. The narrative evokes a mix of wonder and horror: amazement at his strength, terror at what humanity – and fate – can do. It’s one of the most subtly affecting films I’ve ever seen: there were no tears at the end but it may have changed how I see the world.
As for Herzog’s craft, there are two decisions which I think are particularly interesting. The first is his method of presentation: flying to Vietnam, he gets Dieter to recreate moments from his ordeal. In the jungle, it produces a gesture that is haunting because it cannot help but reveal a certain vulnerability. As the elderly man runs with hands tied and guards in front and behind, we see him, after a few metres, stop and glance back over his right shoulder at the camera. Usually armed with a staggeringly upbeat and forgiving mood, it seems that fear and uneasiness fill his head at that moment. Perhaps he worries that it’s all a dream and that he’s woken up back in the jungle.
The second is the reference to Dieter’s fiancée. She is a domestic detail that is only hinted at – mentioned once and never picked up again. Dieter talks about her briefly and Herzog does not question him. Rather than made clear, her absence is marked simply by the silence that surrounds her in the rest of the picture and we’re left to wonder what happened to her. A bit like the sub-plot involving the social worker in Read My Lips (2001), the mention of the fiancée poses more questions than it answers.
See this film.