Friday, January 22, 2010

Wings of Hope

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Werner Herzog / In category: 2 of 10 / Overall: 2 of 100

On Christmas Eve 1971, just hours after her graduation and attendance at the prom, 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke boarded a LANSA flight to rejoin her father at the biological research post he operated in the jungles of Peru. Koepcke's mother was with her; one of the officially listed 95 victims when the plane (whose mechanics, it transpired, were only experienced in working on motorbikes and whose pilots' licences were not in order) crashed deep in the jungle.

LANSA already had a poor reputation. An earlier crash Cuzco had revealed that 106 people were on board, ten more than the maximum. Koepcke recounts that it was with some trepidation that she took the flight. Due to non-availability of aircraft, only one of two scheduled flights left that day. Herzog remembers that those who did get to fly out seemed relieved. Herzog, you see, was there. He was due to fly out to the jungle to shoot 'Aguirre Wrath of God'. Previous flights while location scouting had brought Herzog into contact with some of the crew members who died that day. Herzog caught a subsequent flight and filming commenced. It later transpired that he and Klaus Kinski were making their first collaboration just "a few rivers away from Juliane as she was fighting for her life".

'Wings of Hope', Herzog says, is a film that lay dormant within him for a long time because of this reason. Despite the coincidence, though, Juliane Koepcke's participation was not necessarily guaranteed. In the seventeen years that had elapsed since the crash, the eminently pragmatic Koepcke had sought anonymity in an attempt not just to live a normal life but to define that life by her work as a scientist and not her unwanted fame as the sole survivor of a disaster that claimed over a hundred lives. She had already evaded unwanted media attention and been the subject of a cheaply and quickly shot adventure film* by the time Herzog approached her.

In the book 'Herzog on Herzog' (ed. Paul Cronin), he describes the circuitous route by which he established contact: through newspaper reports that located her mother's burial in a small Bavarian town, Herzog tracked down the priest who had officiated; according to the cleric, an aunt of Koepcke's lived in a neighbouring village. Herzog approached her and, although she would not consent to any discussion with Herzog, she agreed to pass on his phone number. Herzog recalls:

Juliane called me ... I explained to her that it would be enough for me to talk with her for thirty minutes, not a minute longer, and that of course I would not record the conversation. I also explained that exactly five minutes into our meeting I would offer to withdraw if she wanted me to. So when we met I put my wristwatch on the table and exactly 300 seconds into the meeting I stood up, took my wristwatch, bowed to her and said, "This is the deal. I am withdrawing unless you would like to continue for the next twenty-five minutes." And she took my arm and said, "Sit down and stay we haven't finished yet." ('Herzog on Herzog', p.269)

Perhaps this provenance is in Koepcke's mind early in the documentary when she stands with Herzog in Peru's airport, the director describing his memories of the day he tried to get on Koepcke's flight but was turned away. The day his life was saved by blind chance. He asks Koepcke, "Are you ready to go back, do you dare?" She appraises Herzog evenly and replies that she has no choice - "I've come this far." Juliane Koepcke presents, in 'Wings of Hope', as calm, controlled and unshowy, slightly formal but with a warmth and a hint of humour in her eyes. Her descriptions of her ordeal are precise, vivid and completely devoid of hyperbole. She remains composed whilst describing the darkest of experiences - regaining consciousness to the realisation of her mother's death; the realisation that she was alone in the wilderness; the wound she sustained, festering with maggots - and Herzog respects her dignity, her resolve, her quiet but steely inner strength.

"Juliane is a scientist, very straight-talking and clear-headed, and the only reason she survived her ordeal was because of her ability to act methodically through those absolutely dire circumstances" ('Herzog on Herzog', p.270). And as low-key as her description of events is, there is no doubt hers is an incredible tale of survival. The crash occasioned the biggest search-and-rescue mission that had then been undertaken in Peru. It was called off after ten days. Juliane Koepcke emerged from the jungle two days later. Herzog's understanding of Koepcke's "clear-headed ... methodical" character was behind his decision not to incorporate too much stylisation into the documentary.

It's perhaps ironic, for all that Herzog has a profound personal connection to Koepcke's story, that 'Wings of Hope' is one of his most straightforward documentaries. Examples of his trademark "ecstatic truth" are limited to bookended scenes which speculate as to Koepcke's coping mechanism for the tragedy. These sequences utilize the imagery of dreams, but whereas Herzog has sparked deep psychological insights through similar moments in other documentaries, here they serve more to provide a touch of surrealistic poetry to the narrative framework. The overall effect is fitting. The documentarist is a poet and a man of instinct, his subject a pragmatist and a woman of science. The differences are palpable. It's a testament to the power of Koepcke's story, then, that the film never suffers.

* 'I miracoli accadono ancora' ('Miracles Still Happen', a.k.a. 'Amazon Death Trap'), starring Susan Penhaligon, described by Herzog as "a pretty bad movie".


Ed Howard said...

Another typically excellent Herzog documentary, a kind of companion piece or sister film to Little Dieter Needs To Fly. As in the other film, Herzog confronts his subject directly with her ordeal, even asking her to sit in the same seat she was in when she crashed on their flight to the jungle. I'm glad you pointed out that the film's relatively unadorned nature reflects Herzog's understanding of and respect for his subject — he's so often accused of exploiting people or presenting "freak shows" in many of his documentaries, but gestures like this reveal his deep respect for the people whose stories he tells.

Neil Fulwood said...

'Wings of Hope' works very well on a double-bill with 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly'. In terms of subject matter (plane crash/survivalism) and approach (subject taken back to the scene) they are almost variations on a theme. The differences between the protagonists (Dengler as the avuncular, verbose racontueur, Koepcke as the factual, almost dispassionate scientist) are what sets the films apart.