On December 24th, 1971, LANSA flight 508 was struck by lightning and crashed in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. 91 people were killed in the crash, including 85 passengers and all 6 crew members. Only one person survived the disaster: Juliane Koepcke, a 17-year-old German-Peruvian high school student returning home for the holidays. She had been traveling with her mother Maria, a well-regarded ornithologist. After realizing that she was the only survivor of the crash, Juliane determined to find her way out of the jungle. Despite suffering significant injuries, she spent the next ten days traveling on foot, following a river until she was rescued by local lumberman.
Werner Herzog's 2000 documentary Wings of Hope recounts the details of Juliane's journey in an unusual and surprisingly personal way: by having Juliane (who was a married woman in her mid-40s at the time the documentary was filmed) return to the site of the crash and retrace her steps. Herzog had taken a similar approach in his remarkable 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (detailing the harrowing story of Dieter Dingler, an American soldier who escaped from a Vietnamese prison camp), and as in that film he creates a handful of memorable moments that blur the line between reality and fiction (particularly a “dream sequence” near the conclusion). However, the really fascinating thing about Wings of Hope – aside from the riveting real-life survival story it details – is that its central character offers a compelling rebuttal to Herzog's well-established view of nature.
Herzog has long had something of a love/hate relationship with the jungle, returning to it time and time again throughout his career in order to demonstrate what a hellish, suffocating place it can be. That feeling was perhaps most effectively captured in his masterful Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which told the story of a mad conquistador on a journey of self-destruction. There are connections between that film and Wings of Hope on a thematic level, but also on a much more direct one: Herzog was in the same jungle at the time of the plane crash, doing location scouting for Aguirre. Not only that, but Herzog had been scheduled to board the same flight at the same time – his reservation was canceled at the last minute.
Juliane's view of the jungle is far gentler than Herzog's, and her resilience seems to fascinate the director. He marvels at the way she seems completely unaffected by the large bugs swarming around her, and includes a memorable moment in which Juliane delivers an optimistic monologue while standing in the middle of a river: “The danger of the jungle is overestimated. There are piranhas and crocodiles in the water that would love to take a bite out of me, but they aren't.” Amusingly, Herzog contrasts her matter-of-fact testimonials with footage from an “abysmal” (Herzog's word) TV movie based on Juliane's life, featuring an overly dramatic young actress stumbling through the jungle and screaming in fear when she encounter snakes, bugs and other dangers.
For the most part, Juliane keeps her emotions tucked away, and has no interest in creating moments of drama for the camera. She regards her journey through the past with the clinical attentiveness of a professional researcher. Even so, that doesn't stop Herzog from doing his level best to trigger her memories: on the initial flight, Herzog ensures the Juliane gets the same sort of window seat she had on flight 508. Eventually, she begins to crack ever so slightly, permitting herself to feel things that she has clearly suppressed. Herzog dismisses the sort of faux reverence often found in documentaries about tragedies, quietly but firmly probing the depths of his subject's mind.
Late in the film, the focus shifts from the past to the present: the man Herzog sent to find the exact location of the plane wreckage during the film's pre-production period was badly injured by a stingray, and was stranded in the jungle for days waiting for someone to rescue him. Ironically, this is the very man who once rescued Juliane from the jungle. Throughout the film's closing moments, Herzog undercuts Juliane's inspirational words with dismaying footage of her bedraggled former rescuer limping along the beach. Why does Herzog wait until the closing moments of the film to offer this revelation? It's partially because Juliane pays him a visit at the end of her journey, but I suspect it's also because the anecdote reaffirms Herzog's own view of the jungle as, “a yawning abyss.” Herzog has built a successful career out of his time in the jungle, yet he regards it as a source of endless terror. Juliane endured a horrific experience in the depths of the jungle, yet she regards it as a source of endless beauty. There's something worth chewing on.
Wings of Hope
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 65 minutes
Release Year: 2000