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Wings of Hope

     Born in 1942, German filmmaker Werner Herzog has started ruminating in his documentaries on an eventful, precarious life. My Best Fiend (1999) chronicles his tumultuous, literally murderous, relationship with the indisputably psychotic Klaus Kinski, the great star of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and other Herzog classics. Wings of Hope (1999), flies back in time to show how frighteningly close Herzog came to not making Aguirre or any of his wonderful movies, including this luminous work.

     He was in the Lima, Peru, airport on Christmas eve, 1971, trying to get to the Aguirre set out in the jungle. A full plane took off without him, and 92 passengers and crew disappeared off the map in a fatal crash. One passenger survived, a 17-year-old German girl named Juliane Koepke. For Wings of Hope, Herzog decided to relive his trauma of that fateful 1971 night by locating Koepke, having her tell her extraordinary story, and asking her to recreate her trek back to civilization, seventeen years after.

     Is there enough here for a meaningful movie? Our first sight of Juliane Koepke is not promising. She's an average-looking, straight-looking, woman in her 30s with glasses and perhaps dyed-blonde hair, who shows little animation when she talks. She might be an optometrist or work, unnoticed, in a drugstore. But are appearances deceiving! By the time Wings of Hope has concluded, Koepke has moved into a pantheon as a super-hero, whose survival in the jungle was as shrewd and enterprising, and as courageous, as a Robinson Crusoe.

     How did she get to the ground? The first miracle. Koepke and three seats whirled two miles through the air ("We're not in Kansas anymore!"), and she landed, soundly knocked out, amidst soft vegetation. A day later, she awoke with a bad concussion, a frightening gash on her arm. But alive! She wandered away from the crash to try to find help. The cut on her arm filled with maggots, and, against a rain-soaked world of gnawing bugs, she was wearing only a tattered mini-skirt.

     How did she know what to do? The second miracle. Koepke had been raised by her German emigre parents on an ecological site in the jungle. She had grown up with survival training. (Today, she is a biologist, studying rare bat species out in the Peruvian wilds.)Therefore, she realized that she had to locate flowing water and follow it downstream, until the water turned into a navigable river, where natives might find her. And she knew from experience how to traverse jungle water, not caring when crocodiles dived in her path (timid creatures, they were fleeing from a human!) but using a walking stick to fend off lethal sting rays.

     She drank water, but she was too stunned to eat anything at all. Indomitable, Koepke stumbled on... for eleven days! Amazing! And to Werner Herzog's credit, Wings of Hope is among the rarest of films which is not sexist, or gender-specific, in any way. The final miracle: at no point does Herzog marvel at Koepke's survival because she is a woman!.

(November, 1999)


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