As a young German boy, Dieter Dengler already dreamed of becoming an American test pilot. Growing up in post-war Germany, he hardly knew his father, who was killed in World War II. At the age of 18, Dengler left Germany with only 50 cents in his pocket. After drifting about for some time in San Francisco, he enrolled in the U.S. army to fight in Vietnam. During his very first mission in 1966, he was shot down and captured by the Viet Cong.
Werner Herzog tells Dengler's life story in four episodes entitled “The Man,” “The Dream,” “The Punishment” and “The Redemption.” Dengler’s own accounts of his childhood, the cruel tortures he underwent in captivity, and his miraculous escape are all very gripping. Herzog himself is the narrator and the interviewer, but apart from that, he stays in the background. As in many of his documentaries, he plays fast and loose with the distinction between fact and fiction, remaining loyal to his creed that art contains more truth than reality.