Review Of Little Dieter Needs To Fly
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/3/07
Little Dieter Needs To Fly is another in the remarkable body of Werner Herzogís filmic work that is without peer. Having recently rewatched it on DVD, nearly a decade after its initial US release in 1997, it has lost none of its power, and one can see its influence on documentaries as diverse as Herzogís own recent Grizzly Man and Errol Morrisís Academy Award winning The Fog Of War. Like the former, it details, in its far too brief 74 minutes, the life of an interesting American. Like the latter it gives a peek at a side of war that few see. Yes, we see the violence and the heroism, but as The Fog Of War brought us into the mind of one of last centuryís foremost warmongers, this film allows us a peek at the life of a grunt who is captured by the enemy, tortured, and ultimately triumphs. Except, in no way, shape, nor form, is the film as simplistic nor upbeat as my brief description of it. Nor is Little Dieter Needs To Flyís titular subject, Dieter Dengler, and immigrant German who survived the depredations of the Nazis (we find out, as example, that in his hometown, Wildburg, in the Black Forest, his grandfather was the only man not to vote for Hitler, and suffered brutally for that stand) post-World War Two Germany, and his own imprisonment at the hands of the Vietcong, when his Air Force jet was shot down over Laos on February 1st, 1966.
The film probes far too briefly into Denglerís pre-POW days. Yes, weíve all seen far too much film on the Nazis and their evil, but this is one of the few times more would have been better, for Dengler specifically states that his grandfatherís stand against the Nazis helped him steel himself against the Vietcongís torture. He also tantalizingly describes his apprenticeship to a cruel taskmaster after World War Two, and how the manís savage beatings of Dengler and his other charges, also prepared Dengler for what the VC could dole. Dengler had emigrated to America at eighteen, bummed around, and spent years in the military, going to college, before he could get into a cockpit. Herzog takes Dengler, in the film, across the globe- back to his hometown, and also to Indochina, to graphically relive the horrors he suffered. Wisely, though, Herzog does not cut away to too much archival footage. He is content to let the power of Denglerís mere descriptions suffice, oddly reminiscent of that much different film, My Dinner With Andre, which used the spoken word to such great effect. Dengler is more than up to the task, as a wonderful raconteur who speaks of the worst sides of humanity with a precise, detached detailed nature that forces one to listen. There seems to be almost a manic ecstasy that he radiates as he describes the most savage tortures done to himself. In one scene, he describes having a ring he valued stolen by some local villagers. When he complained to his VC captors, for some reason they returned to the village, cut off the thiefís finger with Denglerís ring on it, and returned the piece of jewelry to him.
This is exactly the sort of odd, but elusive, human moment that Herzog delves for like no other filmmaker, and what makes him such a great filmmaker. Having recently watched Grizzly Man, I found it odd that Herzog, a man with such grand visions, could be interested in such a small-minded loser as faux naturalist Timothy Treadwell, the mentally ill man who got himself and a girlfriend killed and eaten by bears in Alaska in 2003. Then, listening to one of Denglerís tales, he describes longing for death in the jungle, after he and a friend made a daring escape from a POW camp. They killed their captors, survived a waterfall, monsoons, then his friend was killed, but Dengler fled away, and found that a bear was following him. As Dengler describes both knowing the bear wanted to eat him, and that a part of him welcomed the release from death, but death evaded him, Ďdidnít want meí, as he puts it, one gets new insights into the deranged mind of Herzogís later protagonist, Treadwell. When Dengler actually states that he missed his deadly pursuer, once the bear left him, the connections that undergird all of Herzogís films, including Grizzly Man, become more manifest. There are many wonderful scenes in the film that then take on even deeper resonance, in retrospect of this later moment in the film, such as Denglerís hording of tons of dried and canned food in his plush Mount Tamalpais homeís foundation, in Marin County, California, and his interests in food and art featuring opened doors, as well as his continued love of flying.
The film ends with Denglerís tale of his rescue, and his being reunited with the man, Eugene Deatrick, who saw him in the jungle, and then visiting an Air Force station where he sees hundreds of planes lined up as far as the eye can see. The visual is impressive, and when the film ends the average viewer is left wondering what more could happen in the life of such a man. I recall wondering that when I first saw the film. The DVD version of the film I watched has an epilogue, attached after the filmís credits, that show Denglerís military funeral on February 7th, 2001, at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington. Interestingly, despite all of the things the film explores, little of Denglerís personal life is explored. We hear anecdotes of his early life, but little of familial life, save for his poverty, his grandfatherís stand, and his fatherís death in the German Army. We briefly see a photo of Dengler engaged to a pretty blond girl before the Vietnam War, but in the epilogue we see the folded American flag being handed to an Indochinese woman, standing next to an Indochinese boy. Were these Denglerís wife and son? If so, would not their romance have added to the filmic portrait of Dengler?
Perhaps, but one has to consider that Herzog is unlike anyone else working in film, here or abroad, for the good or the ill. I opt for the good. While the title of the film, and the idea of Denglerís passion for becoming a pilot, stirred by the impression Allied fighter planes made on him when they razed his town, as a child, make one believe that Dengler is the central subject of the film, this is not true. The subject is Denglerís survival, or, more precisely, his human will, all human will. The details of Denglerís romantic life are too Hollywood and staid an aspect to interest Herzog. Nor is the fact that he won a Purple Heart, Medal of Honor, the D.F.C., and the Navy Cross. That thing which pushed Dengler to survive so much, and remain such a relatively upbeat man (although there are glimpses of darker sides), is what is at the center of this film, and all of Herzogís canon. Dieter Denglerís Ďdistant barbaric dreamí of his past is fully ripened Herzog Country, and the use of a Madagascan chant, Oay Lahy E, during many jungle scenes, among other excellent touches in the score, show Herzog is, perhaps along with only Martin Scorsese, the best manipulator of image and music in film. Long may he merge!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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