Home > Film, History, Reviews > Film Review: Little Dieter Needs to Fly

Film Review: Little Dieter Needs to Fly

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997; Directed by Werner Herzog)

A documentary film about war, survival, beauty, madness, dreams, nightmares, heroism, barbarism, triumph, absurdity, and above all memory, Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly evokes and summons more depth of meaning and indelible thought and fascinating ambiguity in a barely-feature-length 80 minutes than most films, fiction or non-fiction, can muster in twice that running time. It relates the incredible (and quite possibly embellished) story of German-American Navy pilot Dieter Dengler’s imprisonment in Laos and escape to Thailand after being shot down during the Vietnam War, mostly through Dengler’s own overflowing narrations of remembrance, but also through odd re-staged re-enactments of his time in the jungles of Southeast Asia featuring the aged Dengler himself alongside hired locals, and some archival wartime footage as well.

Like many of Herzog’s documentary subjects, Dengler is both a semi-autobiographical reflection of the inimitable (though often hilariously imitated online) German director and a profile of a figure entirely alien to his own (hardly proscribed) experience that deeply fascinates Herzog and his camera. Growing up in the abject poverty and starvation of post-war Germany as Herzog did, Dengler (who hailed from the Black Forest village of Wildberg in Baden-Württemberg, not too far from Herzog’s native Bavaria) became fascinated with flying during a wartime bombing raid on his village and moved to the U.S. to become a pilot, eventually working his way into the cockpit of a Navy fighter over Laos, where he was shot down in 1966. Captured by Pathet Lao guerrillas and eventually handed over to the Viet Cong, Dengler endured imprisonment and torture and witnessed myriad bizarre and brutal episodes in the sweltering jungle before escaping improbably and returning to the U.S. as a decorated veteran (Herzog returned to Dengler’s story with a more conventional Hollywood action movie telling, directing Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale in 2007).

Herzog introduces Dengler as an older man (he died in 2001, four years after the release of the film, as a postscript of his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery reveals), who is disarmingly voluble, bracingly forthright, and marked by his experiences in psychologically visibile ways. His house sits high on Mount Tamalpais in the Muir Woods north of San Francisco, which gives him a sense of security; one episode Dengler relates from his Laotian experiences involved scaling a mountain’s heights to escape his captors and (unsuccessfully) signal rescuers. He is shown obsessive-compulsively opening and closing his car and house doors numerous times, which he effusively explains is a reminder to himself to cherish his freedom, in remembrance of his imprisonment; he also hangs multiple paintings of open doors in his entryway, probably for the same reason (although Herzog, always ready to stage-manage the “reality” of a documentary in search of deeper truths about his subjects, crafted the moment for that effect; Dengler claimed that he only bought the paintings because they were such a good deal). Little Dieter Needs to Fly gives off the distinct impression that Dieter Dengler would be a strange man even if he had not suffered through what he suffered through in the jungles of Laos, but his eccentricity was more extremely shaped by those experiences.

But how much does Dengler, who relishes the storytelling and being put through the re-enactment scenes like a born performer, shape those experiences himself? In many cases, he is the only witness (or the only identifiable, surviving, English-speaking witness) to what happened in the jungle. His reminscences are so vividly, minutely detailed that they carry the whiff of hyperbole at least, if not fabrication. They are often quite literally unbelievable. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is not an open door on this question, but then the documentary films of Werner Herzog are not documents of bare, useless fact but existential quests through the swamps of lived reality for deeper, more mystical truths. All of their narrators are unreliable, because to be human is to be unreliable, unknowable, a well and a mirror of memory and experience.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly is also the rare Vietnam War film that does not stake out a stance about the conflict, let alone about conflict in general. Dengler’s prison camp sufferings are not understood by Herzog to be reflective of any particular injustice or larger political project, and they are not pivoted purposely against either the imperialist American war machine or the repressive communist state apparatus. They are points on an endlessly stretched-out continuum of barbarous fellowship, the infinite ribbon of violent and intimate proximity that constitutes human civilization, forever sustained and obliterated by armed conflict. Herzog even finds an incongruous and twisted beauty in modern warfare, interspersing hypnotic aerial footage of American bombing runs over Southeast Asian jungle villages. Scored by otherworldly traditional Tuvan throat singing and his trademarked narration characterizing the images as a “distant, barbaric dream”, Herzog edits devastating slow-motion napalm explosions to resemble precious unfolding flowers in an apocalyptic spring. He sees art in destruction, but not as fascistic romance like Marinetti did but as something alien, unfamiliar, and dangerous in its beauty, like the magnificence of a remote galactic supernova.

When Dengler’s Viet Cong guards try to make him sign a statement against America’s actions in Southeast Asia (many U.S. POWs did, especially after persistent torture), he flatly refuses. He harkens back to his grandfather, who suffered terrible reprisals when he would not cast his vote for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party during World War II, and tries to emulate his strength of will and conscience. The connection between German fascists and Vietnamese communists is not an ideological one for Dengler, nor is it based in wider historical sweep. It’s family history, personal principle, psychological bedrock. History, like memory, is fluid and subjective, and what it is most subject to is perspective. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a marvel of perspective, and, like all films by Werner Herzog, a unique, strange, and indelible experience.

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Categories: Film, History, Reviews
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