Oddball docu with a floating dual focus examines both the “real” Von Werra, golden-haired flyboy of the Third Reich whose great escape as a POW made him a darling of the press, and the screen Von Werra, actor Hardy Kruger, who played the German ace in the 1957 British film “The One That Got Away.” Though consistently engrossing, pic adds up to less than the sum of its disparate parts. Continued interest in highly dramatic WWII subject might attract History Channel-type following, but docu seems destined for fest and ancillary markets.
Director Werner Swiss Schweizer makes no attempt to fully flesh out Von Werra, though he seems fascinated by the contradictions behind the gilded image. A Nazi icon and symbol of the dashing Luftwaffe with his signature lion cub mascot and eight downed English planes, Franz Von Werra was decorated by Hitler.
Von Werra ranked as a true “flying baron” but one whose past hardly fit that aristocratic image. Brought up in a bourgeois German home, Franz and his sister Emma discovered in their teens that they were offspring of Swiss aristocracy, given or sold (accounts vary) by their true parents who themselves were kicked out of the family castle and reduced to menial labor. Franz must later be dissuaded from strafing the Swiss town of his birth. Meanwhile, in quasi-passionate letters to his sister, he waxes poetic about his high-life Nazi adventure.
Much of pic concerns Von Werra’s three escape attempts (he was the only German ever to escape British captivity): An abortive breakout over a wall; an ambitious second try, illustrated by scenes from “One That Got Away,” that took him as far as the cockpit of an English plane, and the final, successful evasion, chronicled by narration, newspaper headlines and film exceprts, that involved jumping off a train and trekking from frozen Nova Scotia to sanctuary in the yet-uncommitted U.S. Von Werra died at the age of 27 in a “mysterious” plane crash off the coast of Holland.
Director Schwiezer devotes a good section of docu to examining why, 12 years after the end of WWII, Nazi Von Werra is sympathetically portrayed in an English film. Included are extensive interviews with Roy Ward Baker, who directed the immensely popular Rank production, and with its now 72-year-old star. Kruger, a Hitlerjungen and pilot who was old enough to train to be another Von Werra but young enough to have avoided the war, found his true vocation in playing onscreen what he had escaped in real-life.
Clips from later Kruger roles, as the toy plane designer in “Flight of the Phoenix” and big game hunter in “Hatari,” also find weird parallels in the actor’s life. It becomes clear that Kruger, who speaks of first becoming disillusioned with Nazism when he learned a film he admired was directed by a Jew and now lives a productive life as a writer in California, was truly “The One That Got Away.”
Tech credits are first-rate throughout.