Little Dieter Needs to Fly is another in the remarkable body of Werner Herzog's film work, one that is without peer. Having recently rewatched it on DVD, nearly a decade after its initial U.S. release in 1997, it has lost none of its power. I could see its influence on documentaries as diverse as Herzog's recent Grizzly Man and Errol Morris' Academy Award-winning The Fog of War. Like the former, in its far too brief 74 minutes Little Dieter Needs to Fly details the life of an interesting American. Like the latter, it gives a peek at a side of war that few see.
We see the violence and the heroism, but as The Fog of War brought us into the mind of one of last century's foremost warmongers, former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Little Dieter Needs to Fly allows us a peek at the life of a grunt who is captured by the enemy, tortured, but ultimately triumphs. Except that in no way, shape, or form, is Little Dieter as simplistic or as upbeat as my brief description. Nor is the film's titular subject, Dieter Dengler, a German immigrant who survived the depredations of the Nazis (we find out, for instance, that in his Black Forest hometown of Wildburg, his grandfather suffered brutally for being the only man not to vote for Hitler), post-World War II deprivations in Germany, and his own imprisonment at the hands of the Vietcong when his Air Force jet was shot down over Laos on Feb. 1, 1966.
The film probes far too briefly into Dengler's pre-POW days. Even though we've seen far too many films on the Nazis, Little Dieter happens to be one of the few instances when more would have been better, especially considering that Dengler specifically sates that his grandfather's stand against the Nazis helped him steel himself against the Vietcong's torture. He also describes his post-World War II work for a cruel taskmaster, explaining how the man's savage beatings also prepared him for what the VC could dole out.
Dengler had emigrated to America at eighteen. Following his arrival, he initially bummed around, and later spent years in the military before he could get into a cockpit. In the film, Herzog takes Dengler across the globe – back to his hometown in Germany and to Southeast Asia, so his subject can graphically relive the horrors he suffered. Wisely, Herzog does not cut away to too much archival footage. He is content to let the power of Dengler's mere descriptions suffice, an approach oddly reminiscent of the radically different My Dinner with Andre, in which Louis Malle used the spoken word to such great effect.
Dengler is more than up to the task. He is a wonderful raconteur who speaks of the worst sides of humankind with a precise, detached, detailed nature that forces the viewer to pay attention. He seems to radiate an almost manic ecstasy while describing the most savage tortures inflicted upon him. In one scene, he describes having a ring he valued stolen by some local villagers. When he complained to his VC captors, they returned to the village, cut off the thief's finger with Dengler's ring on it, and returned the piece of jewelry to him.
This is exactly the sort of odd but elusive human moment that Herzog strives for like no other filmmaker – and that's also 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. But it all made sense when I listened to one of Dengler's tales, as he describes how he and a friend killed their captors, made a daring escape from their POW camp, later surviving a waterfall and monsoons. His friend was eventually killed, but Dengler managed to flee away – and, longing for death in the jungle, found that a bear was following him.
Dengler says he knew the bear wanted to eat him – and that a part of him welcomed the release from death – but death evaded him. 'Didn't want me,' he explains. With that, one gets new insights into Treadwell's deranged mind. When Dengler actually states that he later missed his deadly pursuer, the connections that bind all of Herzog's films, including Grizzly Man, become more clear. Thus, many wonderful scenes Little Dieter take on an even deeper resonance, such as Dengler's hoarding tons of dried and canned food in his plush Mount Tamalpais home in Marin County, California, and his interest in food and art featuring opened doors, as well as his continued love of flying.
Little Dieter ends with Dengler's tale of his rescue. He later visits an Air Force station where he sees hundreds of planes lined up as far as the eye can see. When the film ended, I was left wondering what more could happen in the life of such a man.
The DVD version of Little Dieter has an epilogue after the film's credits, in which we see Dengler's military funeral on February 7, 2001, at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington. Curiously, despite all the things Herzog explores in his film, we get to know little about Dengler's personal life. We hear anecdotes of his early life, but almost nothing of his family life, save for his poverty, his grandfather's stand, and his father's death in the German Army. We briefly see a photo of Dengler engaged to a pretty blonde girl before the Vietnam War, but in the epilogue we see the folded American flag being handed to an Southeast Asian woman, standing next to a Southeast Asian boy. Were these Dengler's wife and son? If so, would not their romance have added to the film's portrait its subject?
Perhaps, but one has to consider that, for better or for worse, Herzog is unlike any other filmmaker in the world. I opt for the 'better,' for even though the film's title and the idea of Dengler's passion for becoming a pilot – stirred by the lasting impression Allied fighter planes made on him when they razed his town – are supposed to make the viewer believe that Dengler is the central subject of Herzog's film, that is not true.
The real subject of Little Dieter Needs to Fly is Dengler's survival, or, more precisely, his human will – all human will. The details of Dengler's romantic life are too Hollywood and staid to interest Herzog. The same can be said about the fact that Dengler won a Purple Heart, a Medal of Honor, the D.F.C, and a Navy Cross. Whatever pushed Dengler to survive and remain such a relatively upbeat man – though the film shows glimpses of a dark side – is what Herzog chose to focus on in Little Dieter and in all of his canon, including the recent Rescue Dawn.
Dieter Dengler's 'distant barbaric dream' of his past is fully ripened Herzog Country. Additionally, numerous excellent touches in the score, including the use of the Madagascan chant 'Oay Lahy E,' show that Herzog is, perhaps along with only Martin Scorsese, the best manipulator of image and music on film. Long may he merge.
© Dan Schneider.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997). Dir. / Scr.: Werner Herzog. Cast: Dieter Dengler.