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Wings of Hope (Werner Herzog, 2000)
With characteristic detachment, director Werner Herzog chronicles the story of Juliane Koepcke, lone survivor of a 1971 plane crash (which nearly claimed the life of the filmmaker himself) in his documentary Wings of Hope. Filmed in 1999, this cinematic journey retraces the steps of Juliane’s amazing, twelve day trip back to civilization. Only seventeen at the time of her crash, Julianne’s upbringing at the hands of environmental researchers gave her the knowledge necessary to not only survive an uninhabitable environment, but also a rare form of emotional resilience that helped her to overcome the hopelessness of her situation and return to safety.
It is in this portrait of a distinctly German form of stoicism that Wings of Hope most becomes a natural companion piece to Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog’s other plane crash documentary. Like Dieter, Juliane seems unable or unwilling to perceive herself as an exceptional individual. She rarely seems affected by her experience at all. The emotional shell that she’s created around herself is a clear coping mechanism, and probably the main reason she’s able to return to face her near-death so brazenly.
Herzog, for his part, is too aloof to turn Juliane’s story into a blandly inspirational one. As extraordinary as it is, he presents his account of her survival matter-of-factly. His film’s tone matches his heroine’s. By the very nature of the project, she’s a willing accomplice to the director. She would have never had returned to the crash site, after all, had the film not been made. She even restages some of her most harrowing recurring dreams for Herzog, in what are the film’s biggest digressions from its realistic approach and perhaps its most emotionally charged moments.
What results is a film that is less harrowing than pragmatic. The logistics of Juliane’s escape from the rain forest are made clear when we are shown how difficult Herzog’s film shoot is to orchestrate. The scarcely deteriorated remains of the crash that the crew discovers drive home just how untrodden this territory is. The treachery that was present during each step of her journey is made doubly apparent in the irony that emerges when Herzog reveals that the man who found Juliane became a victim of the jungle himself. After Julianne explains how she lived without food or shelter for a dozen days, Herzog helpfully details how much easier her trip would have been if she possessed a machete, complete with a demonstration by a native.
Ultimately, Wings of Hope belies its title. It is less a celebration of any person’s spirit or will to live than a testament to the awesome yet arbitrary power of nature. Juliane is an ideal figure for Herzog because her unique upbringing makes her seem closer to the natural world than the rest of us. When she emerged, from the jungle, we’re told, many natives fled from her, thinking that she was a forest demon. Scenes in which she appears at ease with the bats or bugs that flutter around her suggest oneness with nature, making her stand in contrast to the adversarial attitudes of many of Herzog’s protagonists. In its closing moments, which precede Malick’s The New World explicitly, both in their use of Wagner and their lush green cinematography, Wings of Hope presents an idealized vision of humankind’s submission to its environment.