Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)

I have a passion for Werner Herzog.  I haven't watched as widely in his oeuvre as I would like, but his Grizzly Man is one of the most enjoyably teachable "texts" I have ever included in a course.  Students just have so much to say about its many layers of identification and incomprehension.

I have Rescue Dawn, Herzog's fictionalized account of the German-American pilot Dieter Dengler's imprisonment in and escape from Laos during the Vietnam War, out from right now.  But then, while here in Los Angeles, I discovered that Herzog's earlier, documentary account of the same subject (Little Dieter Needs to Fly) was available on Netflix's increasingly excellent digital streaming service, and I decided that it would be irresponsible, really, to watch the "remake" without watching the "original" first.  (This had nothing to do with the fact that Netflix's digital streaming seems novel and sexy to me, since I don't normally have access to it in Canada, while my rentals - some of which I have had out for months - seem like an onerous duty. Absolutely nothing.)

Dengler grew up in war-torn Germany, and saw his first airplanes when bombers attacked his quaint town during the Second World War.  He becomes entranced by flight when he sees an enemy plane fly mere feet from his bedroom window as a child, the pilot gazing in at him and the machine-gunners shooting everything in sight on the ground.  It is a character note for this unusual man that this terrifying experience leaves him with a profound love of airplanes: little Dieter needs to fly.

Although trained as a blacksmith and church clockmaker, Dengler takes off for America as soon as he reaches his majority.  After arriving on these shores, he immediately joins first the Air Force and then the Navy in hopes of becoming a pilot. While flying a mission over Laos, his plane is hit and crashes, and he is found by enemy forces who hold and torture him.  The film is his account of this imprisonment, and the several attempts at escape he makes, one of which is finally successful.

There are a few things I want to highlight about this film, which was (I think) interesting without being truly fascinating.

First and most strikingly, there is the oddity of Dieter Dengler's affect while describing the horrors of his past.  He is endlessly energetic and cheerful when talking about the past, regardless of how gruesome it becomes.  This cheer flags only once, and then only slightly, when he describes the fate that met his companion in escape, and the depression that descended on him afterwards.  The heartiness of Dengler's cheer reminds me of my own uncomfortable impulse to smile (or even laugh) while receiving painful news or communicating a horrific story.  It is involuntary and defensive - exuberance as a response to terror - but it inevitably seems somewhat ghoulish. Is his (and my) odd relish in treating this horror just a defensive desire to turn pain into a positive emotion?  Or is it the joy of a good story that overrides one's natural sense of seriousness? Or are these two things one and the same? ("He hides behind the casual remark that this was the fun part of his life." - Herzog.)

Secondly, I am struck by the strangeness of the scenes in the Laotian jungle, in which Dieter Dengler tells his stories in front of a group of impassive Laotian "stand-ins" who help to reenact some of the forced marches of Dengler's imprisonment.   What a seriously odd documentary technique, returning to the scene of the trauma to re-embody the action of the film with the key principle actor playing himself - less theatre as we know it now than a sort of a spirit journey.  But the film doesn't emphasize the reenactments (apart from one scene in which Dengler - filled with chipper smiles - tells us that this is all hitting a bit close to home as he jogs through the jungle).  Instead, he mostly just relates crucial parts of the narrative to Herzog and the camera, standing against a backdrop of armed Laotians and verdant jungle.  But what are we to make of his relationship with people who are meant to represent his former captors (who would still, one would think, represent captivity to him), and yet have been hired by the filmmaker.  What are we to make of their wary silence throughout the unfolding of Dengler's narrative?  They form an impassive shadow audience for this film.

At one point he tells a story about a villager who stole his engagement ring, the only thing he had been allowed to keep during his imprisonment.  When he complains to his Vietcong guards, they return to the town, and he feels a rush of satisfaction in thinking he will get his ring back from the thief.  Instead, they drag the villager in front of him and chop off the man's finger before pulling the ring off and handing it back to Dengler.  Never mess with the Vietcong, Dengler concludes with his normal energy, and then catches a minute flinch from the Laotian man standing next to him.  "Don't worry, it's just a word," he says, throwing an affectionate arm around the (I presume) uncomprehending man.  He catches up the man's hand in his and spreads it out: "At least you still have your fingers...."

Thirdly, I have to mention the bear that Dengler encounters on his brutal escape journey, in which he walks, starving, embattled, and finally alone towards Thailand and safety.   It is the single most Herzogian moment of the film:
He was just like a pet.  Of course, I knew this bear was there, he was waiting to eat me.  [Thoughtful pause.] When I think about it, this bear meant death to me.  And it is really ironic that the only friend I had at the end was death. 
Stephen Colbert and Werner Herzog need to get together and talk about their bear issues.

But of course, as Herzog is quick to point out, in the prim and sympathetic tones that make his narrations such an endless delight for me*, death didn't want Dieter Dengler.  He crashed multiple times after this incident, but he endured despite himself.  This makes it particularly intriguing that the film has an addendum from several years after its release, depicting the sharp ritual precision of Dengler's military funeral at Arlington.   Military jets flew over his grave to honor him.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly
dir. Werner Herzog (USA/Germany, 1997)

A postscript: I have a question for any of you who know more than I do about this film and Herzog: Why is Little Dieter in English if it was made for German television?  There must be a good reason having to do with financing and original audience, but I have yet to comprehend it.  Enlighten me, bitte.

* See the brilliant parodic video (the accent is far more pronounced that Herzog's ever is) "Werner Herzog reads Curious George":

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